02/01/2006 12:00AM

First Samurai has questions to answer

First Samurai, under Lisa Sloan on Wednesday at Gulfstream, is a top Derby contender despite concerns about his ability to stay 1 1/4 miles.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The Holy Bull Stakes at 1 1/8 miles is theoretically the more important of the two Florida Derby preps to be run at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. But it will be the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes that will receive more attention because of the presence of First Samurai, who is among the leading Kentucky Derby candidates in the country.

Despite his defeat in his 2-year-old finale and the concerns many have regarding his ability to stay 1 1/4 miles, First Samurai closed as the shortest price, 7-1, of any individual member in Pool 1 of the 2006 Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Only the field, at 3-1, closed at lower odds.

was the undisputed leader of his division after posting one-sided victories in each of his first four career starts, including the Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. But First Samurai lost both his unblemished record and the Eclipse Award after finishing a troubled third behind Stevie Wonderboy in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Frank Brothers, who trains First Samurai for the partnership of Bruce Lunsford and Lansdon Robbins III, brought First Samurai to south Florida to begin preparations for his winter campaign in early December. First Samurai has not missed a beat since, posting a series of works over the local track that culminated with an easy half-mile work from the gate last Saturday.

About the only bump in the road Brothers has encountered with First Samurai since arriving in Florida was losing his regular rider, Jerry Bailey, who retired last weekend. Brothers wasted little time naming a replacement, securing the services of Edgar Prado for the Hutcheson.

"It's nice to have a horse like this coming into the winter with good 2-year-old form, but basically he's going to have to get into the game and reprove himself all over again," Brothers said earlier this week. "He was a nice 2-year-old, and I hope he'll turn out to be a nice 3-year-old. He's got to improve, but there's no reason to think he won't. They'll all start stepping up and weeding out over the next few months, and a lot can happen between now and the first Saturday in May."

First Samurai raced close to the pace and was in front at the eighth pole in each of his four 2-year-old victories. In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he was rank at the gate and fell farther off the lead than expected. He made a midrace run to reach contention after six furlongs before weakening slightly through the stretch to finish third.

"The Breeders' Cup might actually have been one of his better races even though he got beat," said Brothers. "He was not good in the gate, he didn't break, and got a lot of dirt in his face. It would have been nice to have won, but considering everything, I thought he ran very well and he got a lot of schooling out of the race."

Like everyone else, Brothers's biggest question about First Samurai is how far he'll go and whether he can stay 1 1/4 miles.

"Last year it was a question of speed, and this year it will be a question of distance," said Brothers. "But

I decided to start him off in the Hutcheson rather than the Holy Bull because it wouldn't have been fair to run him a mile and one-eighth the first time back. If I could write the script for Saturday he'd lay just off the pace a little bit, but if he were to break out on top I don't think I'd want Edgar to be hauling him back and taking him out of his game. The Fountain of Youth will logically be the second step, but we can't go to step two until we get past step one first."