08/01/2007 11:00PM

Little separates top three in W. Virginia Derby

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Zanjero, a five-time stakes-placed colt trained by Steve Asmussen, is a slight favorite on the track's morning line over nine other 3-year-olds in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby on Saturday at Mountaineer Race Track.

Zanjero, who finished second in his most recent start, the Grade 3 Northern Dancer Stakes at Churchill Downs on June 16, is part of a trio of closely bunched horses on the morning line for the 1 1/8-mile race at 3-1. Dominican, the upset winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes in April, is 4-1, and Delightful Kiss, a winner of two straight stakes races, is 9-2.

The tightness of the morning line is a reflection of the competitiveness of the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby, which offers a purse nearly equal to that of Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, also for 3-year-olds. Both races can be used as a prep for the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 25.

The West Virginia Derby is the feature on a nine-stakes card that will award a total of $1.55 million in purses. Mountaineer was once a moribund racetrack that was struggling to survive, but in the 1990s the state legislature and local counties legalized slot machines at the state's four parimutuel facilities, and not surprisingly, five of the Saturday stakes are named for the highest positions in state government.

The West Virginia Derby will be broadcast live on a one-hour ESPN program that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. The race has an estimated post time of 5:43.

Pete Anderson, the 75-year-old trainer of Delightful Kiss, said earlier this week that if his horse can continue to improve, the Travers could be next. Delightful Kiss, a Hobeau Farm homebred, is the only horse in Anderson's stable, and the Kissin Kris colt has taken the Grade 2 Ohio Derby and $250,000 Iowa Derby in his last two starts. Anderson would like to give Delightful Kiss the chance to face Street Sense and the other division leaders targeting the Travers.

"My horse is doing real good and I would like to possibly take a shot at them," Anderson said.

Delightful Kiss is one of a slew of horses in the West Virginia Derby who would benefit from a fast early pace. Unfortunately for those horses, the 10-runner field lacks legitimate pace, and for that reason handicappers should take a long look at Slew's Tizzy - last by 34 lengths after pressing the pace in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes - and Song of Navarone.

Neither horse has blazing speed, but both have demonstrated that they can race at the front or near the lead in distance races. Slew's Tizzy, 6-1 on the morning line, will break from post 5 and will be ridden by Robby Albarado, a jockey known for his good judgment on the front end. Song of Navarone, front-end winner of the $600,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park in his last start, will be ridden by Fernando Jara and break from the 7 post at 12-1.

The field also includes Sam P., a three-time graded stakes-placed colt trained by Todd Pletcher who breaks from the rail. The field is filled out by Dr. Googles Boogles, Moyer's Pond, Norjac, and Bwana Bull.