04/04/2006 11:00PM

For Lunsford's 3-year-olds, crucial tests await

Bruce Lunsford will run his Oaks and Derby hopefuls at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Bruce Lunsford is one of the many racehorse owners whose itinerary for Kentucky Derby weekend is directly linked to what transpires during the opening half of the Keeneland spring meet.

"I don't know what my plans are going to be until after the Ashland and Blue Grass," said Lunsford.

Indeed, it is crunch time once again at Keeneland. As the sole owner of Kentucky Oaks hopeful Performing Diva and the co-owner of Derby contender First Samurai, Lunsford is strictly focused on how the Ashland, to be run Saturday, and the Blue Grass, set for April 15, will affect his plans.

Performing Diva, trained by Bill Mott, will have a formidable opponent in Balance, the heavy favorite for the Ashland. No such standout looms on the Blue Grass horizon, as First Samurai figures as perhaps a lukewarm choice over Bluegrass Cat and Strong Contender.

Performing Diva, by Storm Cat, is a half-sister to millionaire Vision and Verse, the Lunsford colt who finished second in the 1999 Belmont and Travers. Ever since Performing Diva posted an eye-catching maiden victory at Saratoga last summer, Lunsford and Mott have held out hope for her as a top-class filly, but until she won a mile allowance at Gulfstream Park nearly three weeks ago, they had been mostly disappointed. Still, that latest victory suggested she may be ready for prime time.

"Bill and I have talked about her at great length, and clearly she's a stakes filly," said Lunsford. "The question is whether she's Oaks-caliber, and that's what we're going to find out in the Ashland."

Lunsford is very candid about what First Samurai faces in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. After opening his career with four flashy wins, First Samurai has not finished first (although he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes on disqualification) in his last three races.

"We still don't know about his ability to get two turns," said Lunsford. "That's the question that's still lingering. Nobody questions whether he's a solid racehorse, at least up to a mile, but what everyone wants to see is if he can go a distance at the top level. The Blue Grass is coming up pretty tough, so it will be a great challenge for him."

First Samurai wintered at Gulfstream with trainer Frank Brothers and was the first serious Derby contender to arrive at Churchill Downs after the Louisville track reopened for training March 11. Busting down the Churchill stable gate is something of an annual tradition for Brothers.

"Whether we've gone to New Orleans or Florida for the winter, getting back here in mid- to late- March is something we've done for years and years," Brothers said this week at Churchill. "Nobody should read anything special into First Samurai being back here so early. It's something we always do, and he's just part of the stable.

"There are a lot of reasons we do it. Horses do a lot better in the cooler weather, and it's a good way to get settled and get ready for the Keeneland meet. There's a whole bunch of things, really."

First Samurai already has breezed twice since returning to Churchill, the latest a seven-furlong drill Monday in 1:25.20.

"It'll be six weeks between his races, so he needed a pretty good work," said Brothers.

First Samurai will work once more at Churchill, perhaps Sunday, give or take a day. Then he'll be led onto a horse van for the 85-mile trip to Keeneland, where Lunsford, Brothers, and an untold number of racing fans will watch with fervent interest to see what they can expect for the first weekend in May.

"That's what's really important about this time of year," said Lunsford. "What happens at Keeneland can be make-or-break for whatever else you had in mind the rest of the year."