04/14/2007 12:00AM

Great Hunter takes on the champ

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Street Sense

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last fall, just after Great Hunter finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, trainer Doug O'Neill huddled with his closest confidant, his brother Dennis, and owner Paul Reddam to map out a plan for the colt considered their best Kentucky Derby prospect. They decided to give Great Hunter an extended vacation, bring him back in the Robert Lewis Stakes in March at Santa Anita, then head back to Keeneland, where Great Hunter had won the Breeders' Futurity, for the Blue Grass Stakes. And then, if all went well, it would be on to the Derby.

So far, it's one down, two to go. Great Hunter returned from that four-month layoff in style last month, rallying powerfully to win the Lewis. Now he is here at Keeneland, where on Saturday he will take on Street Sense - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, champion 2-year-old male of 2006, and, oh yes, the current favorite for the Derby - in a compelling edition of the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes.

Seven are entered in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, which will be run for the first time on Polytrack. While there are a couple of horses with upset looks, the focus will be on Great Hunter and Street Sense, two of the highly regarded contenders for the May 5 Derby. This will be the third meeting between the two. Great Hunter was first and Street Sense third in the Breeders' Futurity, and then four weeks later they swapped spots in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

O'Neill trains on the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park, and that is what initially drew him to Keeneland's Polytrack surface last fall with Great Hunter. When Great Hunter ran well here, there was no question the plan would be to return for the Blue Grass.

"After the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Paul and Dennis and I thought the Lewis and the Blue Grass would be the best Derby preps," O'Neill said Thursday from California. "Fast-forward five months, and here we are. Paul is a big advocate of the synthetic racing surfaces. The fact that we had success over Polytrack at Keeneland, and he trains on the Cushion Track at Hollywood, it all played out well."

The Blue Grass, which will be televised live on ESPN beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern, is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 1:15 Eastern. It is the second leg of a pick four wager that begins with the Grade 2, $400,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland and continues with the Instant Racing Stakes and Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park.

In addition to the Commonwealth, which includes the sprinters Midnight Lute and Ramsgate, Keeneland has another graded stakes on the undercard, the Grade 2, $200,000 Jenny Wiley for female turf runners, featuring last year's Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old filly, Wait a While.

Handicappers will face a conundrum in the Blue Grass, for while it is a major race, it clearly is first and foremost a Derby prep for both Great Hunter and Street Sense. They have sufficient graded stakes earnings to make the Derby field if more than 20 horses enter the race, whereas other Blue Grass runners - like Dominican and Teuflesberg - need a cash call.

"We're in it to win it, and to get a good tightener," O'Neill said.

Both Great Hunter and Street Sense have finished in the money in every one of their starts. And both have a late-running style that tends to play well on Keeneland's Polytrack surface.

"He's a patient horse," said Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense. "He does what I like. He doesn't make mistakes."

Dominican is coming off a five-length victory in the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park, which also has Polytrack. He also defeated maidens here last fall, so he is 2 for 2 on synthetic surfaces.

"Polytrack is good for him," said Darrin Miller, who trains Dominican. "He really enjoys it. It allows Dominican to accentuate his stride. He really bounces across the surface."

Teuflesberg, who has raced 14 times, has won 4 of his last 7 starts, including a victory against maidens here last fall. He won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in February, then last month finished third after breaking poorly in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. In a field devoid of speed, Teuflesberg will make the top. Trainer Jamie Sanders sharpened his speed Thursday morning with a three-furlong workout in 35 seconds.

"A mile and an eighth should not be a problem for him, especially at this track," Sanders said. "He loves this track."

Zanjero was a distant third in the Louisiana Derby in his last start. He defeated maidens at Keeneland last fall in his only race on Polytrack. After he raced wide in two races at Fair Grounds this winter, his connections are hoping for a better trip from the rail in the Blue Grass.

"He had such bad trips being pretty wide in big fields in Louisiana," said Scott Blasi, the top assistant to Steve Asmussen, who trains Zanjero. "He should be able to save some ground."