03/12/2009 11:00PM

Derby prospects step forward

Lynn Roberts
On a weekend packed with 3-year-old stakes, Friesan Fire tops a Louisiana Derby field that features five of the top 20 horses on DRF's Derby Watch.

NEW ORLEANS - It's March, and the madness has begun. With only 49 days left to shop for a berth in the Kentucky Derby, the preps now come fast and furious. This week, it's a sensory-overload Saturday, with nine of the top 20 runners in Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch competing in four graded stakes races, all at 1 1/16 miles, in Arkansas, California, Florida, and right here, way down yonder in Louisiana.

It's appropriate that the biggest party will be just a quick cab ride from the French Quarter. Five of the 3-year-olds on Derby Watch - Flying Pegasus, Friesan Fire, Giant Oak, Papa Clem, and Patena - are among nine that are expected to start in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

Trainer Larry Jones has left Friesan Fire in the capable hands of his wife, Cindy, so that he can saddle the unbeaten Old Fashioned in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Nine were entered on Thursday in the Rebel, including Silver City, who was second to Old Fashioned in last month's Southwest Stakes.

At Santa Anita in California, Pioneerof the Nile will be a heavy favorite to claim his third straight victory in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe Stakes, which drew just seven entrants, with fewer expected to start.

And at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, General Quarters, the upset winner of the Sam Davis Stakes, takes on Hello Broadway in the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, which attracted a field of 11 when entries were taken Thursday.

This day could be as sinfully delightful as the char-grilled oysters at Drago's.

Fair Grounds not only has the best race of the day, but also the best card. Six stakes, four of which are Grade 2, are part of a 12-race program that begins at 12:35 p.m. Central. The Louisiana Derby, the day's ninth race, anchors a $100,000 guaranteed pick four that begins with the potential single of Rachel Alexandra in the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, but then moves to a pair of deeply competitive distance races for older horses, the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on dirt, and the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap on turf.

The Fair Grounds races will be seen live all day on HRTV, with Gary Stevens and Jon White providing on-site coverage, and the Louisiana Derby will be seen locally on WVUE-TV, the Fox affiliate in New Orleans, in a one-hour telecast beginning at 4 p.m.

The card could be impacted by rain. The Weather Channel forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of rain for Saturday, with a high temperature of 70 degrees.

This is the 96th Louisiana Derby. The last horse to exit this race and go on to win the Kentucky Derby was Funny Cide, who finished second here in 2003. The last horse to win both races was Grindstone in 1996.

Friesan Fire has blossomed this meet at Fair Grounds. He has won the Lecomte and Risen Star in his last two starts. His stalking style should suit him well in this race, though there are several horses who might be seeking the same spot into the first turn, and all are drawn inside of him. Friesan Fire, who landed post 9, will break from the outside, because Nowhere to Hide, drawn in post 10, will scratch in order to run in the Tampa Bay Derby.

"He's doing great, better than before any race," Cindy Jones said Thursday morning. "He's more focused, more into his gallops. He was late developing mentally. He's more willing to do things on his own. He doesn't have to study so hard to pass the test."

Giant Oak figures to take considerable play following his nightmarish journey in the Risen Star, in which he somehow finished fifth after a trip that was like navigating Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. Giant Oak, a powerful chestnut colt whose face has a wide blaze, looked spectacular while schooling between races on Thursday.

"He's doing as well as you could want one to do going into this," said his trainer, Chris Block. Giant Oak has yet to race on an off track, and Block would prefer that streak remains intact.

"It's not that I don't think he'll handle a wet track," Block said. "I'd just rather run on a dry track so that he gets a fair shake, so that everyone gets a fair shake."

Flying Pegasus was second in the Risen Star, his first start in 4 1/2 months and his first race around two turns.

"He went through a little bit of a growing spurt after that race, so we've been patient with some of his training, and you're always afraid of the bounce factor," said Ralph Nicks, who trains Flying Pegasus. "He's a very smart horse, and with time and the more racing he gets, the more professional he gets."

Papa Clem flew in Wednesday from California, where he finished second to Pioneerof the Nile in last month's Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Like Flying Pegasus and Friesan Fire, Papa Clem prefers to lay close to the pace. Papa Clem merely walked the shed row on Thursday.

"He kicked the back of the plane when he flew, but it looks like everything's all right," said his trainer, Gary Stute.

Patena, second in the LeComte in his only race on dirt, is making his first start in nine weeks and since being privately purchased by IEAH Stables, which turned Patena over to trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.

Free Country is seeking to rebound from a fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Sam Davis. He is adding blinkers.

Soul Warrior, sixth in the Risen Star after getting stopped going to the half-mile pole, also is adding blinkers. He is trained by Steve Asmussen, who also sends out Uno Mas, third last time out in the Risen Star.

Terrain is making his first start since Dec. 5, when he was fifth in the Delta Jackpot. That was his first start with blinkers. They're gone this time.