03/19/2009 11:00PM

Hints that 'Bernie' might be Derby material

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FLORENCE, Ky. - With this being just the fourth year the Lane's End Stakes will have been run over the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park, there is a limited sampling from which to judge how the race stacks up as a Kentucky Derby prep.

The 2008 Lane's End winner, Adriano, was proven as a turf specialist before and after his powerful win in the Lane's End and his 19th-place finish in the Derby.

The 2007 winner, Hard Spun, acquitted himself in terrific fashion by running second to Street Sense in the Derby. Before and after the Derby, Hard Spun was a proven entity on dirt.

The 2006 winner at 48-1, With a City, died of a blood ailment before the Derby, and his Turfway upset rendered him a one-hit wonder.

No other Lane's End starters in those first three runnings over Polytrack - which first came into use at Turfway in September 2005 - developed into major Derby threats. So the question being asked going into the Lane's End on Saturday is whether any of the 12 horses entered Saturday will legitimately belong in the 2009 Derby discussion afterward. With a $300,000 winner's share from the $500,000 purse, the winner surely will make the 20-horse cutoff for the May 2 race.

Based on past performances, the most obvious candidate to emerge as viable is West Side Bernie. With three of his five races having come on dirt - a maiden win, a second in the Delta Jackpot, and a third in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream - the colt is at least on the outer cusp of the Derby picture.

"He's shown enough on dirt that I'd say he belongs," said trainer Kelly Breen. "The way he's maturing is a big plus. He's coming into this race the right way, I know that."

Conversely, the other Lane's End favorite, Bittel Road, has never even raced on dirt. But if he were to win Saturday, trainer Todd Pletcher said he will consider him a Derby prospect.

"We're going to see how this race goes, and then we can decide whether to train him up to the Kentucky Derby or run once more," in the April 18 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, said Pletcher.

Turfway president Bob Elliston said the track takes no rooting interest.

"Ideally, we just want a good horse who can go on and compete at a high level, regardless of surface," he said.

Before Polytrack, the Lane's End (long known as the Jim Beam) occasionally popped up as a key race, with Summer Squall, Hansel, Lil E. Tee, Prairie Bayou, and Birdstone winning at least one Triple Crown race after competing in the Turfway showcase.

Prado gets shot at rare feat

Since Pat Day captured his fifth Lane's End on Lil E. Tee in 1992, no jockey has won the race more than once. Edgar Prado, who won last year aboard Adriano, will try to end that 16-year streak of no repeats when he climbs aboard West Side Bernie for the first time, replacing Elvis Trujillo.

Breen said Prado's credentials as a Hall of Fame jockey who won the 2006 Derby aboard Barbaro moved him and owner George Hall to reach out and secure Prado's services.

"It just came to the overall experience of Edgar," said Breen. "Cool, calm, and collected is how I would describe him."

None of the other 11 jockeys in the race has won the Lane's End.

Balls' ties to Turfway run deep

Don and Mira Ball have been coming to Turfway for a long, long time. The Balls, whose Donamire Farm will send out Parade Clown on Saturday, won a division of the race with Ambassador's Image in 1975, when it was still known as the Spiral Stakes and the track was called Latonia. The purse was $25,000.

Don Ball, now a real estate mogul in Lexington, Ky., was the trainer of Ambassador's Image but soon gave up training and turned over the family stable to his son, Mike, who trained for about 10 years. Since then, Mike's wife, K.K., has trained part of the Donamire stable while other horses have been parceled out to various trainers.

K.K. Ball is the trainer of Parade Clown, a long-striding Distorted Humor colt whose last four races came at Turfway. He looked particularly strong two starts back in winning the Feb. 7 WEBN Stakes, earning an 89 Beyer Speed Figure, then was something of a disappointment when second as the 3-5 favorite in the Feb. 28 John Battaglia Memorial.

In the Battaglia he was beaten by fellow Lane's End starter Proceed Bee. "He was aggressive, ended up five wide around the first turn, and still got beat just a length," noted K.K. Ball. "That was frustrating, but he was still finishing at the end."

Silver lining among dark clouds

It has been a brutal winter at Turfway. The holiday meet in December was marred by a rash of breakdowns, while the dominant news items from the winter-spring meet that began Jan. 1 have been cancellations, short fields, a purse cut, and a double-digit percentage decline in all-sources handle.

The week of the Lane's End, however, provides "a respite in the storm," said Elliston. "This is our Derby week; we revel in it. Next week, it'll be back to the hard grind."

Gomez will be Keeneland regular

Like many other top riders from around the country, two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez will spend most of his April at Keeneland.

Agent Ron Anderson said Gomez will ride regularly at the Keeneland spring meet, which runs April 3-24. Gomez, based in Southern California, has won the last two Eclipses for top jockey.

* Bryce Turner, the 19-year-old son of prominent Kentucky equine attorney Joel Turner, died Monday after collapsing during a pick-up soccer game at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., where he was a student.