04/09/2006 11:00PM

First Samurai gears up for Blue Grass

First Samurai works with Rafael Bajarano up at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The regional finals for the Kentucky Derby have been completed in California, Florida, Illinois, and New York the past two weeks. Now, with the exception of this Saturday's Arkansas Derby, the focus is squarely on this state, and on Monday, the sun was shining on the old Kentucky home of the Derby, Churchill Downs, where had his final prep for this state's most important Derby prep, the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland.

On a cool, gorgeous morning under the twin spires, First Samurai breezed a half-mile in 48.20 seconds, and galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.80, shortly after the midmorning renovation break. First Samurai, the Fountain of Youth Stakes winner, broke off behind a workmate, inhaled that pacesetter midway through the drill, then cruised home effortlessly under Rafael Bejarano, who will ride First Samurai for the first time on Saturday.

There may be questions about First Samurai's ability to handle the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles, but based on the way he trained Monday, and the speed-favoring nature of Keeneland's main track, First Samurai should be a formidable presence going 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass.

"He went really, really good," said Bejarano, who won six races while visiting Santa Anita on Saturday. "In hand. Really comfortable, really relaxed. Very easy. He was very strong. And after the wire, he wanted to go a little more."

Frank Brothers, who trains First Samurai, said he wanted Bejarano "to see that he could sit behind a horse, and let him finish up down the lane."

"He finished out good, galloped out strong," Brothers said.

The Blue Grass is expected to lure 10 3-year-olds when entries are taken, and post positions drawn, at Keeneland on Wednesday morning. The other highly regarded runners in the Blue Grass are Bluegrass Cat, who most recently finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the unbeaten, lightly raced Strong Contender. Bluegrass Cat breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40 at Churchill Downs on Sunday for trainer Todd Pletcher.

"I thought he worked real well," Pletcher said Monday at his Churchill barn. "I think he really likes this track. We decided to train here because if you get rain, it's a little more consistent surface. And hopefully after the Blue Grass he'll be back here."

Others expected to be entered in the Blue Grass are Court Folly, Little Cliff, Objective, Sadler's Trick, Seaside Retreat, Sinister Minister, and Storm Treasure.

The Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday could have as many as 13 runners, including Lawyer Ron, who won last month's Rebel Stakes. His rivals are expected to include Film Fortune, High Cotton, Jealous Profit, New Joysey Jeff, Nob Hill Deelite, Private Vow, Red Raymond, Sayhellotolarry, Simon Pure, Steppenwolfer, Well Said, and With a City.

Saturday's races are especially crucial for the likes of Steppenwolfer and Strong Contender, who need to significantly enhance their graded-stakes earnings to be assured of berths in the Derby field if more than 20 runners are entered. In addition, Seaside Retreat is near the bubble, and likely will need to bring home more cash to stay in the top 20.

Graded-stakes earnings, the criteria to determine the Derby field if more than 20 horses enter, appear to be coming into play despite the powerful victories last Saturday of Brother Derek, the Derby favorite, in the Santa Anita Derby and Sweetnorthernsaint in the Illinois Derby. The first three finishers from the Santa Anita Derby, four horses from the Illinois Derby, and four horses from the Wood Memorial, which was won by Bob and John, are, for now, still pointing for the Kentucky Derby, their trainers said Monday.

Brother Derek, who closed as the 5-1 favorite on Sunday in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, got a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 for his victory in the Santa Anita Derby. His trainer, Dan Hendricks, said Brother Derek likely would work twice in California and once at Churchill Downs over the next 3 1/2 weeks. Hendricks said he expects to ship Brother Derek to Kentucky about 10 days before the Derby.

"It's time to get a little more serious. I'll have to let him work this time," Hendricks cracked.

Hendricks said he was impressed with the way Brother Derek handled a boisterous crowd on Saturday.

"They were hanging on the fence and he didn't get shook up, unlike me and Cecil," Hendricks said, referring to owner Cecil Peacock. "The Derby is different. You have to get used to the media horde and the barn area. It's hard to imagine what it will be like. You need to get in there 10 days early."

Both Point Determined, who was second in the Santa Anita Derby for Bob Baffert, and A. P. Warrior, who was third for John Shirreffs, are moving on to the Derby, their trainers said.

Sweetnorthernsaint got a 109 Beyer for his runaway victory in the Illinois Derby. That is the best two-turn figure of any Derby contender. His trainer, Michael Trombetta, is pondering a shipping schedule similar to that of Brother Derek.

"Shipping a few days out has been my way of doing it, but for this race I'd have to think we'd do it a little differently and get him a work over the track," Trombetta said.

Mister Triester, a distant second to Sweetnorthernsaint, is likely to point for Churchill's ungraded Derby Trial on April 29 and bypass the Kentucky Derby, trainer Warren Stute said.

Cause to Believe, who was third in the Illinois Derby, was scheduled to return to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's base in northern California on Tuesday.

"We'll train him out here and try to make a good decision on what to do," Hollendorfer said. "I'm not one to make excuses. We were beaten by a good horse. But there wasn't enough pace, and I don't see how we were going to close. The thing that bothered me was that he never really kicked it in, and I don't know why he wouldn't."

Wayne Catalano, who trains Illinois Derby fourth-place finisher Lewis Michael, and Bobby Barnett, whose Malameeze was fifth, both said they would consider the Derby if their horses had enough graded-stakes money to get in.

Bob and John, who shipped in from California, got a Beyer Figure of 99 for his victory on a sloppy track in the Wood. Bob and John "acts like he didn't even run," said Baffert, his trainer. "I knew that horse needed the East Coast."

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, whose Jazil was second in the Wood, and trainer Tom Albertrani, whose Deputy Glitters was sixth, both said they definitely would move on to the Derby. Pletcher said Keyed Entry, who tired to finish third, would go to Churchill next Monday, but that no decision would be made on his Derby status until he trains here.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, Marcus Hersh, and Mary Rampellini