05/29/2008 12:00AM

This derby looks like a match race


Z Fortune was head and head with Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. And then they ran the second half of the race.

So, okay, Z Fortune will not be a Derby winner - a Kentucky Derby winner, at least - but there are plenty of less glamorous derbies out there for the taking, and Z Fortune, 10th by 19 lengths behind Big Brown on May 3 at Churchill, will take a swipe at the $300,000 Ohio Derby on Saturday at Thistledown.

Z Fortune was one of eight horses entered in the Ohio Derby, a Grade 3 at 1 1/8 miles on dirt. There are eight entries, but to some eyes it's a two-horse race between Z Fortune and Smooth Air.

"It looks to me like it may be between him and Z Fortune," said Smooth Air's trainer, Bennie Stutts.

Smooth Air checked in one running position and about two lengths behind Z Fortune in the Derby, but where Z Fortune had a fairly clean run, Smooth Air broke in the air and was steadied. The in-race trouble followed a prerace minor illness that cost Smooth Air training time leading into the Derby.

"If everything would've went right, he might've been third," Stutts said.

But can Smooth Air beat Z Fortune if Z Fortune brings his "A" game? Smooth Air's best performance probably was his second-place finish behind Big Brown in the Florida Derby. Z Fortune was a sharp winner of the Lecomte at Fair Grounds, a good second behind Pyro in the Louisiana Derby, and a good second to Gayego in the Arkansas Derby. But sandwiched between those starts was a fifth-place clunker in the Rebel.

"I think he was pretty flat," trainer Steve Asmussen said of the Derby run. "He's just a big old growthy colt, and I don't think we've gotten the best of him by any means."

Smooth Air will break from post 1 under Manoel Cruz, while Z Fortune has post 7 and Garrett Gomez. Both figure to race in the second flight of horses behind speedsters Celtic Meal and Stolen Chevy.

Two others - Instill and Cherokee Artist - merit attention. Instill defeated the solid older horse Stonehouse in an Illinois-bred stakes race last month at Hawthorne, while Cherokee Artist, making just his second career start, scored an impressive Derby Day maiden win around two turns for trainer Graham Motion.