Updated on 09/17/2011 11:17AM

It's now-or-never time

Man Among Men starts in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It's time to step up. For many of the 12 entrants in Saturday's Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, the race is a final chance to earn a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Unlike the Wood and Blue Grass, races that have drawn a number of horses who are already heading to the Kentucky Derby, most of the owners and trainers who have runners in the Arkansas Derby are looking for their charges to give them a reason to head to Louisville.

Heading the field for the $500,000 Arkansas Derby are two colts already on some people's Kentucky Derby radar screens: Region of Merit, winner of the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, and Eugene's Third Son, runner-up in the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End.

Eugene's Third Son's ticket to the Derby hinges on his performance Saturday.

"It would be nice to go into the Derby winning one of these preps," said Pat Byrne, who trains Eugene's Third Son.

Other Arkansas Derby contenders include Man Among Men, who earlier in his career defeated top 3-year-olds Empire Maker and Peace Rules; Aristocat, who will add blinkers; Cat Genius, who could control the pace; Defrere's Vixen, a late Triple Crown nominee; Crowned King, winner of the Rebel Stakes here; and lightly raced sleeper Christine's Outlaw.

The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, because of its wide-open and full field, is perhaps the best betting race of Saturday's three Kentucky Derby preps. All will be linked by a special pick three, with post for the last leg, the Arkansas Derby, set for 4:44 p.m. Central. The race is to be broadcast on NBC along with the Blue Grass Stakes. Oaklawn officials project a crowd of about 50,000 for Saturday, the final day of the meet.

Region of Merit, who is 4 for 5 in his career, is the lone graded winner in the field and will be out for his fifth straight win Saturday. In his last start, he was a three-quarter-length winner of his stakes debut, the Tampa Bay Derby.

"It was a tough race for him," said Christophe Clement, who trains Region of Merit for Calumet Farm. "I'm not sure he handled the track as well as he could have. He was good enough to win."

Region of Merit's streak dates back to Nov. 16, when he won his maiden at Aqueduct. From there, he won two conditioned allowances at Gulfstream Park, on Jan. 11 and Feb. 15, before his score at Tampa.

"He got to winning, and you've got to like that," said Clement. "Mentally, he's a very mature type of horse, and physically, he's getting stronger all the time."

Eibar Coa has the mount Saturday.

Aristocat was second in the Tampa Bay Derby, when he raced farther back than usual and rallied wide. For this trip, he will add blinkers for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won two of the last three runnings of the Arkansas Derby: with Balto Star in 2001 and with Graeme Hall in 2000.

The new equipment might give Aristocat the surge he needs finally to get past his nemesis, Region of Merit. The two colts have met twice, and Aristocat closed the gap on Region of Merit in their last meeting. Rene Douglas has the mount for Michael Tabor.

Eugene's Third Son has thrived since flying into Hot Springs on Monday.

"As good as the horse shipped and is training over this track, I'm glad we made the decision to come here," said Byrne, who trains the Indian Charlie colt for Serengatti Stable.

Eugene's Third Son missed by a neck to New York Hero last out after a wide trip in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End at Turfway Park.

"The track at Turfway was getting slow toward the end of the day, and it set him up perfect for this," said Byrne. "There will be a little quicker racetrack here, I believe."

Byrne looks for Eugene's Third Son, who will break from post 12, to be in the race from the start, stalking the probable pacesetter, Cat Genius.

"The thing about us, we've got a lot of seasoning," said Byrne. "We've got two 1 1/8-mile races under our belt. And physically, he's really blossomed."

Shane Sellers picks up the mount on Eugene's Third Son.



Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1Sell to SurviveC. Marquez Jr.11850-1
2Crowned KingC. Rennie12215-1
3Defrere's VixenD. Meche11810-1
4Christine's OutlawM. Guidry11812-1
5Sir CherokeeT. Thompson11830-1
6Cat GeniusC. Borel1225-1
7Region of MeritE. Coa1225-1
8Comic TruthH. Theriot12215-1
9AristocatR. Douglas1188-1
10Man Among MenS. Solis1224-1
11Saint LiamJ. Court11830-1
12Eugene's Third SonS. Sellers1187-2

Blinkers on: Aristocrat

Odds by Byron King

Television: Saturday, 4:30-6 p.m., NBC