03/29/2017 2:16PM

Derby Watch: Asmussen shifts focus back to 3-year-olds

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Hence will go straight from this win in the Sunland Derby to the Kentucky Derby.

NEW ORLEANS – Steve Asmussen could be excused for being sleepy or wondering where he was on Wednesday morning here at Fair Grounds, and not for the usual reason for people who visit this city and overindulge.

No, Asmussen was getting his bearings after a whirlwind trip to Dubai, where the best horse in his barn, Gun Runner, ran the best race of his life on Saturday, finishing second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. Asmussen returned to the United States on Sunday, and on Wednesday, the Hall of Fame trainer was here, plotting his moves with his numerous Kentucky Derby prospects, including Local Hero, who tries to earn a berth in the Derby starting gate when he competes on Saturday in the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby.

Asmussen also was mapping out plans for Hence, who won the Sunland Derby on Sunday, plus Untrapped and Lookin At Lee, both of whom competed in the Rebel Stakes last time out.

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Having a barn that is active on so many fronts requires a capable team, and Asmussen’s includes his longtime assistant Scott Blasi, who was in Dubai for two weeks with Gun Runner and, like Asmussen, was back at Fair Grounds on Wednesday morning. He seemed to have adjusted better to the time change.

“I don’t know how Scott is up,” Asmussen said.

Asmussen, though, is used to running on adrenaline. With a home outside Dallas and runners during the winter here and at Oaklawn Park, Sam Houston, and Aqueduct, he’s often on the go. So, while he might still have been recovering from the overseas trip, when it was time to work, the blinkers were on. There were sets to train, developments to discuss with Blasi. When the subject turned to his horses, Asmussen, as always, was focused, thorough, and candid.

Local Hero comes off a third-place finish here in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star Stakes, a race won by Girvin, the Louisiana Derby favorite. Local Hero will try to stretch his speed to 1 1/8 miles. Florent Geroux, who has ridden Local Hero in his last two starts, is back aboard.

“We feel really good going into the Louisiana Derby,” Asmussen said. “He ran really well in his maiden win. That was [his] first time going two turns. The Risen Star was relatively quick back. He’s had more time between races. I’ve liked his works. Now’s the time to show he’s capable of stepping forward from that.”

Of Asmussen’s other three prospects, only Hence is done with his preps. Asmussen said he will head straight into the Kentucky Derby after his win in the Sunland Derby. Hence won a maiden race at Oaklawn in January but was seventh in the Southwest there prior to the Sunland Derby.

“I liked this horse a lot going into the Oaklawn meet,” Asmussen said. “I loved him going into the Southwest, thought we had something, but he threw in a bad race. Maybe he just needed more time. Maybe he chased the speed a little too much at Oaklawn. I liked the way he finished up when he came under the wire on Sunday.”

Both Lookin At Lee and Untrapped will make their next start in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby going 1 1/8 miles at Oaklawn on April 15. They were sixth and third in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes on March 18.

“I’m looking forward to running Lookin At Lee a mile and an eighth,” Asmussen said. “He’ll benefit more from going a mile and a sixteenth to a mile and an eighth most of all of our 3-year-olds.”

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Asmussen’s best 3-year-old last year was Gun Runner, who won the both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. He has gone on to win three more stakes, and on Wednesday was flying back to the United States from Dubai. The rest of his 2017 campaign is to be determined, but the year-end goal is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.

Gun Runner was scheduled to go into 42-hour quarantine at Arlington Park, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and then be vanned to Churchill Downs, arriving Saturday.

“He’s awesome,” Asmussen said. “He shows up, doesn’t he? I loved what Florent said after the race – every time he’s ridden him, he’s ridden a better horse.

“We’ll give that effort the respect it deserves, let him get his travel legs under him, and figure out how to run against that gray horse at the end of the year.”