03/26/2010 12:00AM

Lane's End offers a Derby spot


FLORENCE, Ky. - For at least one shining moment Saturday, a long and brutal winter will be all but forgotten when Turfway offers what amounts to an automatic berth into the Kentucky Derby field with the 39th running of the Lane's End Stakes.

A Grade 2 ranking and $500,000 purse equate to that coveted Derby spot, and pretty much everyone affiliated with the 10 Lane's End starters is well aware of that critical link. No, none of the top 20 or so 3-year-olds are here, but if you can slide through this side-door route to Churchill Downs, all that will matter on Derby Day is that you've made it into the starting gate.

The Polytrack surface in use at Turfway since September 2005 surely will be a mitigating factor when the 2010 Lane's End is reviewed in the context of the Derby, and rightly so. Nonetheless, graded earnings are graded earnings, so the most urgent matter before horseplayers is trying to determine which horse will win Saturday.

Connemara, who figures as a solid favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race, seems a very good place to start. If the Derby were to be run on a synthetic surface, which of course it is not, then Connemara might actually be ranked in the highest echelon of contenders. As it is, the Giant's Causeway colt has won 3 of 4 starts, all on synthetics, and would be widely seen as an unknown Derby quantity if his connections choose to advance to Louisville with a victory Saturday.

"He has trained on dirt and turf, but synthetics seem to be his preferred surface," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has at least a half-dozen other prospects for the May 1 Derby in his powerhouse stable. "If he does well, whether he goes in the Derby would probably depend more on how he did training at Churchill following the race."

Connemara, with Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze in to ride, will break from post 1. The colt comes off an authoritative victory in the Feb. 20 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate.

While Pletcher could remain noncommittal for weeks afterward, other Lane's End trainers seem more eager to bounce straight into the Derby fray. John Sadler has sent the well-seasoned Ranger Heartley here from Southern California and is hoping the one-time $32,000 claimer can run his famous co-owner, trumpeter Herb Alpert, into the Derby spotlight. Ranger Heartley, strictly a front-runner, faded to fifth in the El Camino Real after upsetting Connemara in the California Derby.

"We're looking for another chance to keep him on the Derby trail," Sadler said.

Other contenders in a well-balanced lineup include Northern Giant, most recently third in the Risen Star for D. Wayne Lukas; Outlaw Man, and Kettle River, the respective fourth- and eighth-place finishers in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita; and Dean's Kitten, heretofore a turf specialist for Mike Maker.

Rounding out the field are Doubles Partner, Chief Counsel, Letsgetitonmon, and Vow to Wager.

The Lane's End goes as the ninth of 12 races on a Saturday card that includes five other stakes races, led by the $125,000 Bourbonette Oaks and $100,000 Rushaway Stakes. First post is 1:10 p.m. Eastern, with the Lane's End going at 5:12.

The Lane's End will be televised live on the USA cable network on the first "Road to the Kentucky Derby" telecast of the 2010 season. The show (5-6 p.m.) emanates from the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and will focus mainly on the Louisiana Derby.

The weather forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and a high of 63.