08/03/2011 3:17PM

Emerald Down: Zayda still improving with added distance

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AUBURN, Wash. – With the Emerald Derby fast approaching, what began as a 3-year-old division teeming with Derby prospects has been whittled to a select few. Couldabenthewhisky, the top 2-year-old at Emerald Downs last summer, will be among the leading contenders when the Derby is renewed for the 74th time Aug. 14, but the favorite’s role likely will fall to Zayda. Blaine Wright, who trains Zayda for owner Heidi Nelson, says he’s comfortable wearing the bull’s-eye.

“This horse is figuring it out,” Wright said this week while sketching out long-term plans for his star 3-year-old. “He’s put on 75 to 100 pounds since his 2-year-old year and really filled out. He came back and breezed really good last weekend, and we’ll have one more breeze before the Derby. The horse is doing well. I’m encouraged as we progress with him that he’s starting to show a bit more speed and not leaving himself with so much to do.”

Zayda, a late-running son of Bluegrass Cat from the Unbridled mare Winter Solstice, has been on the fast track since Nelson put him in Wright’s care last year. He has won three of his six starts this year, beginning with a victory in a one-mile maiden race at Golden Gate on New Year’s Day. He has captured two consecutive stakes at Emerald, though the first of those required assistance from the stewards, who took down Rainier Ice for causing a chain-reaction bumping incident in the final yards and elevated Zayda to the top spot. Zayda didn’t need any help in his most recent start, however, as he rallied from the back of the pack to win the 1 1/16-mile Seattle Slew Handicap going away. He’ll stretch out to nine furlongs in the Derby, and Zayda is bred to run all day.

“Couldabenthewhisky is definitely the horse for me to outurn,” Wright said. “He did have trouble in that last race, and he’ll be the horse to beat. I don’t know about the rest of the field; we’ll have to see how they shake loose. However, I think my horse can run up to a mile and half, and when they increase the distances, that’s when he’ll really start to shine.”

Wright is convinced that Zayda has a bright future. That explains his start in the California Derby at Golden Gate in his first outing following his maiden victory. That didn’t go too well – Zayda never got involved and finished eighth, 13 lengths behind the winner – but much progress has been made over the past eight months. If everything works out in the Emerald Derby, Wright said he’ll push Zayda into deeper waters this winter.

“If he can keep taking steps forward, we’ll probably have to go on the road with him,” Wright said. “I don’t know where, but we’ve been looking – I’d love to get him back on the turf at some point. He shows he’s handling dirt, he obviously likes the synthetics, and we’re very interested in getting him back on the turf. We’ve got some races picked out all over the country, and we’ll choose a spot for him in late September or early October.”

◗ Hollywood Harbor, who ran 6 1/2 furlongs in a meet-fastest 1:13.80 in his last start, breezed one mile in 1:40 last Sunday. Trainer Chris Stenslie said the speedy 4-year-old is being considered for a start in the $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 21. He would join confirmed locally based starters Noosa Beach, Winning Machine, Assessment, and Saratoga Boot in what is shaping up as a compact field.

◗ Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has nominated a handful of horses for the Mile. They include Our Nautique, front-running winner of the San Francisco Mile on the turf at Golden Gate in April; Whatsthescript, a six-time stakes winner who finished third behind Goldikova in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita; and Honour the Deputy, fourth in the Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton in his last start. Nominations for the Mile close Sunday.

◗ Jersey Town, runner-up in the 2010 Longacres Mile, finished second in the $103,000 Teddy Drone Stakes at Monmouth Park last weekend in his first start of 2011. The winner, Force Freeze, ran six furlongs in a near-track record 1:07.77 to beat Jersey Town by four lengths.