04/10/2008 12:00AM

Gayego tests dirt in Ark. Derby

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Show me the money!

It's all about graded earnings with three weeks left to the Kentucky Derby, and several horses on the outside looking in can make up some serious bank-account ground Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. With a purse of $1 million that pays back to sixth place and no standout in the 14-horse field, the Grade 2 race that closes out Oaklawn's meet can put a number of "bubble" horses in the gate the first Saturday in May.

"It's a final chance to make the Derby, and a one-two-three finish would punch the ticket," said David Carroll, who trains leading contender Blackberry Road, who is 23rd on the graded earnings list entering the weekend "But we're there to win and, hopefully, he runs his race and that will be good enough."

The Arkansas Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, is one of two major preps for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The other is the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland. The races will be part of a national pick four, with the Grade 2 Commonwealth from Keeneland and the $75,000 Instant Racing from Oaklawn.

Over the past four years, the Arkansas Derby has been won by Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones, who have accounted for five classics. This year there isn't an early Kentucky Derby favorite in the field, but that's not to say one won't emerge from the race. That horse could be Gayego.

He might be a slight favorite in what is an excellent betting race. There will be 12 wagering interests in the Arkansas Derby, with three starters, Ablaze with Spirit, Jazz in the Park, and Shekinah, grouped together in a mutuel field.

Gayego is seeking his first win around two turns in what will be his dirt debut, but he ran a bang-up race in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita. Gayego stayed close early to the quick Bob Black Jack, made the lead, and finished second by three-quarters of a length to Grade 1 winner Georgie Boy.

"It was his first two turns, only his fourth start, and he ran huge," said Paulo Lobo, who trains Gayego for Cubanacan Stables. "He did the dirty work for the race. He needed to track Bob Black Jack."

Bob Black Jack ended up third and returned next out to finish second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

The Arkansas Derby is key for Gayego as he is ranked 36th in graded earnings, his lone money in that category the $40,000 he earned in the San Felipe. "We're hoping he steps up off that one, and if he does, he's going to be one of the horses to reckon with, I think," said Mike Smith, the regular rider on Gayego.

Liberty Bull won the $600,000 WinStar Derby at 1 1/8 miles at Sunland Park on March 16, and the Beyer Speed Figure of 95 he earned is the best last-race number in the Arkansas Derby.

"First and foremost, he showed that he can get the distance," said Tom Amoss, who trains Liberty Bull for Kenneth Maier.

Amoss said Liberty Bull also displayed an ability to lay off the pace. It was his second stakes win; he won the $50,000 Smarty Jones at a mile here Jan. 21.

"The two things that led us to Arkansas are, number one, he's shown an affinity for that track," said Amoss, who has given the mount to leading rider Eddie Razo. "And the second is that we're going to be running over a traditional surface of dirt. And we like that."

Z Fortune, to be ridden by Robby Albarado, has more graded earnings than his rivals, as he sits 22nd on the list thanks to his win in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds and a runner-up finish to Pyro in the Grade 3 Risen Star there. That performance made him an odds-on favorite in the Grade 2 Rebel here March 15. Z Fortune finished fifth in a race his connections view as a throwout.

"It was a complete mystery to me," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Z Fortune. "I've never been as wrong about something you thought so strongly about. But he's trained very well since, looks good. We just need him back on the map."

My Pal Charlie and Blackberry Road finished second and fourth to Pyro last out in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, and that race has become a key one. Tale of Ekati came out of it to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, and J Be K won the Grade 3 Bay Shore. Another top contender in the Arkansas Derby is multiple stakes winner Golden Yank, a tactical horse who has been training well at his home track of Oaklawn.

"He's got a good turn of foot," said trainer Gary Thomas. "You can put him wherever you want him."

In addition to graded earnings - $600,000 to the winner, $200,000 to second, and $100,000 to third - the Arkansas Derby will give its starters a taste of the elements some will encounter three weeks from now. The field is large. The race is on dirt. And the projected crowd of 45,000 to 50,000 will be rocking Oaklawn's three-sixteenths of a mile grandstand.

The forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 60 degrees. First post is noon, with the Arkansas Deby scheduled to be broadcast live on ESPN at 5:44 p.m. Central.