03/19/2009 11:00PM

Friesan Fire rises to the top

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Fair Grounds
Friesan Fire, with Gabriel Saez up, romps by 7 1/4 lengths in Saturday's Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. Friesan Fire swept all three of the major stakes for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds this winter for trainer Larry Jones.

A little less than seven weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, trainer Larry Jones is sitting in a good spot. Sure, it could be better. Had Old Fashioned won the Rebel Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, Jones unquestionably would have the top two contenders for the Derby on May 2 at Churchill Downs. But the ascension of Friesan Fire, who turned in a career-best effort in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, more than made up for any subsequent disappointment later Saturday.

"There was a time we thought Friesan Fire was the better horse, then Old Fashioned stepped ahead of Friesan Fire," Jones said. "We're fortunate to be in a situation where we've got to wonder which one is better."

The Louisiana Derby and the Rebel, which was won by longshot Win Willy, were two of four significant Kentucky Derby prep races Saturday. As with those two races, one of the remaining pair was formful, the other not so much.

At Santa Anita, heavily favored Pioneerof the Nile won his third straight race, this time in the San Felipe Stakes. But form took a holiday at Tampa Bay Downs, where Musket Man led a parade of longshots in the Tampa Bay Derby, in which General Quarters and Hello Broadway disappointed.

Friesan Fire got the best Beyer Speed Figure of the four winners, a 104. Win Willy got a 102, while Pioneerof the Nile and Musket Man each received a 90.

All four winners came out of their races in good order, but only three are certain to have another prep before the Derby. Jones said Friesan Fire could simply train up to the Derby. His other option is to prep in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 11. Regardless, Friesan Fire is headed to Keeneland next week to train.

"We're going to just kind of watch him and observe him for a little bit and see how well he gallops, how much life he has," said Jones, who trained the second-place finisher in the Derby the two previous years. "Do we need another one to keep him progressing the right way? Then it's kind of when we have to start teeter-tottering and start really making some decisions. But we'll try to make that and see if we need to get another race in him or not.

"We've got seven weeks. It was five weeks between the [Risen Star] and the [Louisiana Derby], so that definitely did not seem like it hurt him and so I don't know that seven would be a major, major obstacle for him.

"He's probably had more races than most horses that are going to be running in the Derby, anyway," Jones continued. "That was his seventh race. Needless to say, I don't think that's way too many. But he definitely has enough seasoning, and like I said, the last three races he's definitely showed the professional aspect of it that he just wasn't showing before.

"We always knew he was a talented horse, but he just wasn't trying to be professional about it. He was just going out there to have a good time. But the last three races, he's caught on."

Papa Clem, who was second in the Louisiana Derby, has remained at Fair Grounds and likely will ship to Hawthorne next week to prepare for the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 4, trainer Gary Stute said Monday.

Terrain, who was third, will make his next start at Keeneland, either in the Blue Grass or a week later in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes on April 18, trainer Al Stall Jr. said.

Giant Oak, who was fourth, and Patena, who finished eighth, also are likely headed to the Blue Grass, their respective trainers said Monday.

Flying Pegasus, who was sixth, is going to "regroup," trainer Ralph Nicks said, and is out of the Derby picture.

At Oaklawn, Old Fashioned suffered his first career loss in the Rebel. Jones said Old Fashioned was "very much on the muscle" on Sunday morning and would have a rematch with Win Willy in the Gradeo2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 11.

"If we were going to get beat, this was the time to do it, because from now on out all races are worth a million dollars or more," Jones said. "So, we move forward, and maybe that was just an off day for him. We're not panicked."

Jones said the quick pace "just kind of got to" Old Fashioned. He did not fault jockey Ramon Dominguez for engaging pacesetter Silver City with three furlongs to go.

"I don't know that Ramon had a lot of options," Jones said. "You know, Silver City is a very good horse and you would look ridiculous if you let him get seven or eight lengths out in front of you and then never caught him."

Win Willy, a son of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, is not yet nominated to the Triple Crown, but trainer Mac Robinson said he would be by March 28, when it costs $6,000. It cost $600 to nominate in January.

"The pace scenario obviously flattered him," Robinson said of the Rebel, "but he also broke from the nine hole and went around them. He's a real tough horse and tries hard and seems like he'll run a long way."

Pioneerof the Nile, the San Felipe winner, will come back in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 4. Bob Baffert, who trains Pioneerof the Nile, said he was not concerned that Pioneerof the Nile appeared to wait on horses in the stretch.

"It turned out to be a perfect race," Baffert said. "He's got that long stride of his. When I work horses with him, I've got to put them 10 lengths in front."

Feisty Suances, who was second in the San Felipe, is possible for the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Darrell Vienna said. Jeranimo, who was third, could run in the Santa Anita Derby, the Illinois Derby, or the Blue Grass, trainer Mike Pender said.

"We'd prefer to stay home," Pender said. "He's maturing by leaps and bounds. He's catching up to them."

Musket Man, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, also could head to the Illinois Derby, trainer Derek Ryan said. The Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct is on April 4, too.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, Mary Rampellini, and Mike Welsch

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