04/26/2008 12:00AM

Gayego works; Smooth Air questionable

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Barbara D. Livingston
Gayego works five furlongs Saturday on a surface upgraded from sloppy to muddy.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A week before the 134th Kentucky Derby, three contenders took a step forward toward the race, while one took a significant step backward.

Here at Churchill Downs, Gayego, the Arkansas Derby winner, completed his serious training for the Derby with a five-furlong drill. Over at Keeneland, Monba and Cowboy Cal, the one-two finishers in the Blue Grass Stakes, also worked five furlongs.

But while those three were firming up their status for the Derby, Smooth Air, the runner-up in the Florida Derby, became a question mark after failing to go to the track to train for the second straight day, a development that affects not only his chances of making the Derby, but also those horses on the bubble in terms of graded stakes earnings.

Smooth Air, according to his trainer, Bennie Stutts, "has been a little sick."

"He was running a slight fever, and you cannot train a horse who is running a slight fever," Stutts said Saturday morning outside Barn 35 at Churchill Downs. "This morning, he's normal, but he had to miss training yesterday and today. Normal for him in the morning is 99.9 degrees. Today it's 99.9. If it stays down, he'll be able to go back to the track and train [Sunday]. It got up to 101.9, which is definitely a temperature.

"It's been an emotional ride for me," said Stutts, 70, who has never had a starter in the Derby. "My horse came in here 100 percent, ready to run to the Rocky Mountains."

More than 20 horses are expected to enter the Derby on Wednesday. If that happens, the field will be determined by earnings in graded stakes races. If Smooth Air is withdrawn before entry time on Wednesday, that would allow a horse currently outside the top 20 to get in. The filly Proud Spell is not expected to run, and Salute the Sarge has all but been withdrawn, leaving Denis of Cork currently on the bubble and needing another defection, such as Smooth Air, to get in the field. Both Denis of Cork and the horse below him, Halo Najib, would run in the Derby if they can get in.

Eligibility is no problem for Gayego, who worked five furlongs in 1:01 on Saturday morning under jockey Mike Smith, who will be aboard in the Derby, too. Because of overnight rain, the track was rated muddy when Gayego worked after the renovation break; it was rated sloppy earlier in the morning.

Both Smith and Gayego's trainer, Paolo Lobo, hustled out of Churchill Downs as soon as Gayego came off the track because they had to catch a flight back to Los Angeles, where both were competing Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park.

Lobo, reached on his cell phone while awaiting his flight at the Louisville airport, said he was "very happy" with the work.

Lobo said he also was happy that Smith was able to get Gayego onto the track in time to be the first worker after the break.

"He worked alone," Lobo said. "All the track was for him."

At Keeneland, Cowboy Cal worked by himself and was timed in 1:00 for five furlongs. Monba, working in company with Ready's Echo, completed five furlongs in 1:02.60.

"Cowboy Cal I had slightly faster than a minute, and I had him going out three-quarters in 1:12 and change," said Todd Pletcher, who trains both Cowboy Cal and Monba. "He did well. He's a willing work horse.

"Monba, the work was typical for him. He's not a blazing work horse. But I thought he got over the ground well."

Pletcher said both colts, along with Lexington Stakes winner Behindatthebar, would not be sent the 72 miles from Keeneland to Churchill Downs until Wednesday, the day entries are taken and post positions drawn for the Derby.

Satish Sanan, the co-owner of Behindatthebar, said he would "let Todd make the decision" on whether to run in the Derby. Pletcher said he might take until Tuesday or even Wednesday to decide.

The uncertain nature of Behindatthebar put jockey David Flores in a predicament. Flores was expected to ride Bob Black Jack in the Derby, but after Behindatthebar won the Lexington with Flores, Flores suddenly had two possibilities.

Behindatthebar is farther up the graded stakes earnings list, and there is a very remote chance Bob Black Jack will not get into the Derby because of insufficient earnings. Because of that, Flores will ride Behindatthebar if he runs in the Derby, according to his agent, Brad Pegram. If Behindatthebar does not run, Flores would remain on Bob Black Jack.

Richard Migliore is expected to pick up the mount on Bob Black Jack if both Behindatthebar and Bob Black Jack are in the Derby.

The fillies Proud Spell and Eight Belles on Saturday both had their first days of training at Churchill after arriving Friday from Keeneland. Of the two, Eight Belles definitely will be entered in the Derby, while Proud Spell is unlikely to enter. Yet Saturday, Proud Spell wore a yellow Kentucky Derby saddle towel when she trained, while Eight Belles wore a pink Kentucky Oaks saddle towel. Their trainer, Larry Jones, galloped both.

Asked if something should be read into his choice of towels, Jones laughed.

"I just want to get them all used," said Jones, who has both Derby and Oaks towels for each filly. "This week I'll do it the right way. I just want to be able to say that all of them have been used."