04/30/2012 3:18PM

Kentucky Derby: Joneses in no rush to enter Mark Valeski


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Evidently there exists, at some obscure black market or on a forgotten dusty shelf of an ancient pharmacy, an antidote to the illness that strikes the Thoroughbred world each spring – Derby Fever. And the Joneses, former Kentucky governor Brereton and trainer Larry, have procured a dose of it.

Mark Valeski came within a nose of winning the Risen Star Stakes. He lost a horseshoe and a chunk of foot while coming home second in the $1 million Louisiana Derby. And on Monday, Mark Valeski zipped five furlongs in a bullet 1:00.30, the fastest such work among 28 at Churchill Downs. All this, and the Joneses remain reluctant to commit Mark Valeski to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Mark Valeski has the graded-stakes earnings to make the field if desired, but a final decision won’t be reached until Wednesday morning.

“I have the ultimate respect for Kentucky racing and the Kentucky Derby,” said Gov. Jones, a longtime owner and breeder who operates Airdrie Stud, a Kentucky farm. “To me, the two most important races in the world are the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.”

Jones has already won the Oaks, with Proud Spell in 2008, and he has Believe You Can for the race this year. But Jones has never started a horse he owns in the race he holds most dear, the Derby, and yet he said the decision on whether to hold or fold will rest solely with his trainer.

“I know he’ll do what’s right for the horse,” Jones said.

Larry Jones appears still to be pondering that question. He said that Mark Valeski’s workout Monday morning seemed solid enough but that he would assess Mark Valeski’s temperament and physical vibe over the next 48 hours before making a final call.

“I’ll know more tomorrow than I do today, and more Wednesday than I will tomorrow,” said Jones. “He’ll walk tomorrow, but the real test is going to be Wednesday, when I take him to the gate and to the paddock. I need to see if that’s going to get his blood up. If he comes off the track bucking and squealing – which he will do sometimes, but not all that often – then I know he’s telling me he’s ready to go out there and do something. But if he walks back kind of ho-hum, like it’s just another day, that’s not going to be good enough. We’re going to have to find another spot.”

That other spot, should it become necessary, would probably be the May 12 Peter Pan at Belmont Park. And part of the reason Mark Valeski’s trainer is giving serious thought to Plan B is what he perceives to be the depth in this year’s Derby. Jones’s first two Derby starters, Hard Spun and Eight Belles, finished second. Jones’s third Derby starter, Friesan Fire, actually was favored when he finished 18th in a Derby lacking top-to-bottom quality.

“If this was a Friesan Fire kind of year, we’re in,” he said. “But I think this is a deep race. We’re going to be 30-1 in there at least. And I don’t want to be the one whose horse runs his race and finishes 13th.”

Should Mark Valeski defect, it would open the door for Optimizer to get in. Which would be fitting. Optimizer is trained by Wayne Lukas, a man who never met a Derby he wasn’t willing to try.