09/18/2007 12:00AM

Grasshopper rises rapidly to top ranks

Deborah Kral/Horsephotos
Grasshopper surged to prominence when he nearly beat Street Sense in the Travers.
Louisiana Downs set out to lure a superstar to the Super Derby by offering to double the purse to $1 million this year if a Triple Crown race winner was part of the field. And while Street Sense, Curlin, and Rags to Riches all chose different paths, the track has still landed one of the hottest 3-year-olds going for Saturday's race.

Grasshopper will be a strong favorite in this year's Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby after surging onto the national radar last month with a bang-up performance in the Grade 1 Travers. He went hoof-to-hoof with Street Sense for much of the stretch run of the $1omillion race at Saratoga, finishing second by a half-length to the Kentucky Derby winner.

Grasshopper earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 107, the same number Strong Contender earned winning last year's Super Derby over eventual Grade 1 winner Lawyer Ron.

"We're very excited about Grasshopper," said Mark Midland, vice president of racing operations at Louisiana Downs. "I think, really, the story of the race at this point is, 'How good is Grasshopper?' It's pretty amazing for a horse, in his first stakes race, to almost beat the Derby winner at a mile and a quarter."

For the Super Derby, Grasshopper will be cutting back to 1 1/8 miles, a distance at which he won in his start before the Travers. Among the eight or nine rivals he is expected to face are Going Ballistic, third last out in the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington Park; Leonnatus Anteas, the champion 2-year-old last year in Canada; and Past the Point, an Indian Charlie colt purchased for $400,000 as a 2-year-old in training at Barrett's.

Grasshopper, a long-striding colt trainer Neil Howard describes as "tenacious," has come a long way in a short amount of time. A winner of 3 of 6 starts and $318,532, he began his career last October by finishing second in a maiden special weight at seven furlongs at Keeneland after stumbling at the start. One race later, Grasshopper made his two-turn debut, and defeated eventual stakes winner Forty Grams in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs.

"He was a horse that we expected tremendous things of in the winter, and he came up with a tibia injury and so we had to lay him up," said Will Farish, who co-bred and co-owns Grasshopper with friends E.J. Hudson Jr. and James Elkins. "But we really thought from the very beginning that this was a top horse."

Grasshopper was given time off to heal from a small tibia fracture in his right hind leg. He returned to the races in June, and picked up right where he left off, with a win in a first-level allowance at six furlongs at Churchill. From there, he was a troubled third in an $80,000 optional claimer at seven furlongs before venturing to Saratoga.

Grasshopper made his first start in New York on July 30, and was a front-running, six-length winner of a $50,000 optional claiming race at 1o1/8 miles, earning a 105 Beyer. The effort was one of the reasons his connections made a bold, uncharacteristic move and stepped Grasshopper up into a Grade 1 race at 1 1/4 miles for his stakes debut. The colt responded with a bold performance.

Grasshopper set the pace in the Travers under Robby Albarado, and put up a fight along the rail when engaged in the stretch by Street Sense. The two battled at equal weights, with Grasshopper carrying nine more pounds than he had one start earlier at Saratoga.

"I thought it was a top-class performance," Howard said of the Travers. "He only had the one race around two turns this year going into it, and I think when you're running against horses like the likes of the Street Senses, the Curlins, the Rags to Riches - when you run well with those, it's a very strong feeling of satisfaction."

Grasshopper is a son of Dixie Union, whose richest win came in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell at 1o1/8 miles in 2000. His dam is Grass Skirt, a daughter of Mr. Prospector and the Nijinsky II mare Balinese. Farish, the owner of Lane's End Farm in Kentucky who bred and raced 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, often breeds for the market. But he said he and Hudson and Elkins had a couple of reasons for keeping Grasshopper.

"We just decided that he was an extremely nice colt, and we were trying to make the mare," he said. "We had already had a stakes winner out of her. We felt that it was a strong family, and one we wanted to try and take our time with and develop."

Straw Hat, a full brother to Grasshopper, won the Black Gold at Fair Grounds in 2005, but an injury kept him from reaching his full potential. Last Saturday, another full brother to Grasshopper, Turf War, became a stakes winner when he captured the Swynford at Woodbine.

As for Grasshopper, the Super Derby could be his springboard to the Breeders' Cup Classic and a rematch with Street Sense.

"Whether he even has enough points to run in the Classic will be a question, but it certainly will be a consideration," said Farish. "But you know, it's one race at a time. We have to see how he does in the Super Derby, and then take a reading and make a decision there. Or, we could point for something like the Clark at Churchill, then give him a little bit of time and get ready for a 4-year-old campaign."

Either way, Farish and his partners have much to look forward to with Grasshopper, starting on Saturday.