04/22/2003 11:00PM

Indian Express works smartly

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With less than two weeks to the race, it is crunch time at Churchill Downs for horses training for the Kentucky Derby.

Last spring, Proud Citizen stood out on a daily basis in the mornings leading up to the Derby, then went out to finish second behind War Emblem at odds of 23-1. Harlan's Holiday, on the other hand, turned in a disappointing work five days before the race, and finished a non-threatening sixth as the Derby favorite.

So the time has arrived to track this year's crop of Derby candidates during their crucial final preparations for the big race. The goal is to find that one horse ready for a breakthrough performance, or a major contender showing signs of having already peaked.

Three prospective Derby starters worked almost simultaneously minutes after the renovation break on Wednesday. Trainer Bob Baffert sent out Indian Express and Kafwain in company. They were followed almost immediately by Ten Most Wanted and jockey Pat Day.

Work of the day

Indian Express (seven furlongs in 1:26.27). Although he turned in the slowest time of the trio of Derby workers, Indian Express was the most impressive of all workers.

With Baffert's top exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard, Indian Express broke off at the seven-eighths pole a length in front of Kafwain. He went an easy three-eighths and half-mile in 37.90 seconds and 50.07, gradually increasing his advantage to nearly two lengths midway around the turn. At that point, Kafwain picked up his pace and eventually joined his stablemate turning into the stretch. Then he was hard-pressed to keep up with Indian Express, who turned in a solid final quarter mile split of 24.20 despite the fact Barnes never asked him to exert himself. He galloped out a mile in 1:39.74. This lightly raced colt appears to be peaking at the right time, and it will be interesting to see if he can come up with a similarly strong performance in his final Derby prep next week.

Ten Most Wanted (seven furlongs in 1:25.57). He worked the same distance but a bit differently than the Baffert pair. He was a bit rank before breaking off at the six-furlong pole, tossing his head about as Day tried to keep him from getting away too eagerly. Despite not getting much of a run to the pole, Ten Most Wanted immediately settled into a good stride, going off at a much faster pace than Indian Express, with opening fractions of 37.06 and 48.85. He was put to light urging by Day inside the furlong marker and again as he continued working out past the wire to the seven-eighths pole - while covering his final quarter in 24.43. He galloped out well, getting a mile in 1:38.82 and continued on strong around to the five-eighths pole. Overall, it was a solid work from a colt who has never been one to set the track on fire in the mornings.

Kafwain (seven furlongs in 1:26). Working with blinkers on, he broke off a length behind Indian Express leaving the seven-furlong pole, then lost ground while struggling to keep up into the turn. He finally caught his stablemate when put to pressure entering the stretch, but had to be hard-used merely to keep pace with Indian Express through the final furlong before again falling back slightly during the gallop out. It was a less-than-encouraging move for a horse who reeled off a series of bullet and near-bullet works when on top of his game earlier this winter. Officially, he was credited with six furlongs in 1:13.20.