03/16/2009 12:00AM

Derby spot up for grabs in England


A guaranteed place in the Kentucky Derby lineup awaits the winner of Wednesday night's Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a $115,000 allowance race that will be run on a right-handed Polytrack surface at a distance of 1 1/8 miles at Kempton Park near London.

Twenty-three horses were named to the Derby Challenge at Friday's five-day entry stage, but the field has been reduced to the track's safety limit of 14, with the final entries determined by the British Horseracing Board's handicap ratings. Nine of those 14 have run in stakes races, but only one, Weald Park, has been placed in a group race, and only one other, Talking Hands, has won as much as a listed race, both of those efforts having come on turf.

Half the field, however, has been successful on Polytrack, and it is from this group that the winner is likely to emerge, this being the sort of race that frequently goes to unexposed types still open to improvement.

Haashed, winner of a one-mile Polytrack maiden in his lone start at Lingfield in November, is the likely favorite. Trained by Mark Johnston for Hamdan al-Maktoum, this Mr. Greeley colt is a half-brother to Zaham, a 1 1/4-mile listed winner at Royal Ascot. He won his maiden debut by two lengths in a time 1.53 seconds faster than the second division. Johnston also saddles Mastery, a Nottingham maiden winner who was third in a competitive one-mile turf allowance at Newmarket on Oct. 17.

John Gosden will saddle two contenders - Mafaaz and Close Alliance. A second Sheikh Hamdan colorbearer, Mafaaz, won his maiden at Kempton going seven furlongs in September and followed with a 2 1/4-length fifth in the Tattersalls Million behind subsequent Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Donativum. Close Alliance, a Juddmonte Farms son of Gone West, won his first and only time out in a one-mile Great Leighs Polytrack maiden in October, beating Redding Colliery, who has since been third in the UAE 2000 Guineas behind Godolphin's leading Kentucky Derby hope, Desert Party.

Markyg runs with the benefit of a race under his belt this season, one of only four such in the Derby Challenge. In fact, the Karl Burke-trained son of Fusaichi Pegasus has won his last two starts, both on the Kempton Polytrack, taking a one-mile maiden in October and a seven-furlong handicap on Feb. 25 when he was spotting his rivals eight to 17 pounds.

The Grand Slam colt Spring of Fame is 2 for 2 on Polytrack, winning a seven-furlong Wolverhampton maiden last fall by five lengths and a 1 1/16-mile Lingfield handicap on Marcho5 by three lengths.

The most familiar entry to Americans is Deposer. A maiden winner on the Lingfield Polytrack in July, he was a well-beaten fourth to Square Eddie in Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity.

The winning owner will receive an additional $100,000 if his horse starts in the Kentucky Derby, courtesy of Churchill Downs, whose vice president, Tom Aronson, is in London spearheading the track's marketing efforts in Britain, all of which are designed to increase international participation in the Kentucky Derby.

"Our purpose in sponsoring the Kentucky Derby Challenge is twofold," Aronson said. "First is to increase the competitiveness of the Derby by addressing the lack of European participation in recent years. The excitement provided by Bold Arrangement, Arazi, and Johannesburg when they ran in the Derby was palpable. Second, we are addressing an imbalance in the use of graded stakes earnings in determining Derby runners. That system works well domestically but is disadvantageous to European horses. The Kentucky Derby Challenge is a step in redressing that imbalance.

"We are gratified by the response of British horsemen to our effort," Aronson continued. "We are also keenly interested in encouraging international betting on the Derby. With, hopefully, a British horse running, there will be increased Derby interest in Britain. We are working hard to put together a co-mingled Derby pool in which British bettors can participate."

Post time for the Kentucky Derby Challenge is 3:50 p.m. Eastern.