01/10/2008 1:00AM

Lecomte starts long Derby trek


They call it the Derby trail for a reason. Each early-season 3-year-old stakes sends some horses down a fork leading to tougher competition, while others fall onto a path of lesser resistance. The Lecomte Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds sits far from the glittering final prize, the Kentucky Derby, but it starts sorting out prospects from pretenders.

The Lecomte is the last of six $100,000 stakes on the card, and caps an all-stakes pick six. Nine were entered in the one-mile Grade 3, but Star Guitar is out with an injury.

Of the other eight, Texas Fever and Blackberry Road showed the most at age 2. Texas Fever, winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway, makes his dirt debut, and hasn't started since a sixth-place finish after an impossible trip in the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. But Texas Fever has a dirt pedigree, and has turned in a series of sharp workouts for his 2008 debut. Trainer Mike Stidham proclaims Texas Fever fit for a strong effort.

"If he gets beat, it won't be because he isn't ready," Stidham said.

Blackberry Road was third behind Texas Fever over Polytrack in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, but came back with a better second-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and appears to be a better horse on dirt. He has breezed steadily at Fair Grounds, while not working as fast as Texas Fever.

"We're hoping he can stay on the road," trainer David Carroll said.

Texas Fever should take up position stalking the pace from the rail. Blackberry Road dropped 14 lengths off the pace in the KJC, but Carroll said he thinks he can stay in touch with the pacesetters.

"I think he can get a little better position," said Carroll.

Macho Again makes his stakes and two-turn debut, but looks like a player. A good second in his Saratoga debut, he floundered over Polytrack at Keeneland, then came back with a maiden win and a good second in a one-turn-mile entry-level allowance at Churchill.

"He's not a real fast work horse, but he's been doing well," trainer Dallas Stewart said. "He's very manageable. He'll stretch out."

Z Fortune is unbeaten in two starts, but takes a major class hike, having only beaten New York-breds so far. Z Fortune won at seven furlongs in his debut, but trainer Steve Asmussen, who also starts Star Defender, fears the Lecomte might be too short.