05/06/2002 11:00PM

A fight on front end likely in Derby

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - There could be a mad dash for the lead Saturday in the Grade 3, $500,000 Lone Star Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race that is expected to attract speed horses Danthebluegrassman, Cappuchino, Smoked Em, Wiseman's Ferry, Holdthehelm, and Jeremiah Jack.

The race will be the first trip at nine furlongs for Jeremiah Jack, whose biggest career win came as a front-runner in the $150,000 Sam Houston Texan Juvenile last December at Sam Houston Race Park.

"The distance doesn't trouble me," said Tom Amoss, who trains Jeremiah Jack. "It's the way the race looks to set up. On paper, there looks to be a lot of talented front-end horses, which we're one of. A lot will depend on post positions."

Gerard Melancon has the mount on Jeremiah Jack, who had his second minor throat surgery of the season following his last start, a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn on March 23.

Smoked Em, whose three career wins have come on the front end, was a wire-to-wire winner last month of the $125,000 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico. He will be ridden for the first time Saturday by Chris McCarron.

"We were very pleased with [the Tesio]," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Smoked Em. "He was able to control the pace - although he's not the kind of horse that has to have the lead - and he laid down some good fractions and had something more when they came to him."

Wiseman's Ferry also went wire to wire in his last start, winning a Keeneland allowance by more than five lengths April 14. The race was his first start around two turns, and just his second in North America.

"He certainly has a lot of speed," said Niall O'Callaghan, who trains Wiseman's Ferry. The trainer noted, however, that the colt won his maiden from off the pace.

Two closers an asset for Asmussen

A rapid pace in the Lone Star Derby would benefit both Windward Passage and Forty Nine Deeds, two closers who will be saddled by Steve Asmussen. The trainer is looking for his first Lone Star Derby win. From two starters in the race, he has finished second, with Fifty Stars last year, and third, with Big Numbers in 2000.

Outside of the Lone Star Derby, it seems Asmussen has won every trophy there is to win at Lone Star. He is the track's all-time winningest trainer with 274 victories, and his stable's local earnings exceed $6.2 million. He has also won a record 23 stakes at Lone Star.

Windward Passage seems like Asmussen's best hope to win the Lone Star Derby. He brings solid credentials into the race, having won the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn in March, and finishing in a dead heat for third in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby.

"I think that he'll run extremely well," said Asmussen.

In his last start, Forty Nine Deeds won the $75,000 Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park.

Top 10 horses earn money

As it has in each of its five runnings, the Lone Star Derby will pay purse money past the traditional fifth place. This year, the sixth through 10th place finishers will earn $7,500. The winner of the race will earn $277,500.

If fewer than 10 horses start, the purse funds not distributed will revert to the owner of the winner, but this year, it appears the race could draw the maximum 14 starters. There were 13 probables as of Tuesday.