04/29/2010 11:00PM

Musket Man tops stellar Churchill Downs


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With the Breeders' Cup Sprint and Dirt Mile to be run later this year at Churchill Downs, it's little wonder that trainers with long-term prospects for those events are getting in a race over the track when they can.

That opportunity arises on the Kentucky Derby undercard Saturday with the Grade 2, $250,000 Churchill Downs, which came up wickedly tough. The defending champion in the "tweener distance" race of seven furlongs is Accredit, but with rugged opposition this time around, he is a literal and figurative outsider after having been assigned post 13 in a field of 13 older horses.

Musket Man, Munnings, Warrior's Reward, Wall Street Wonder, Ventana, and Kensei are all notable entrants in a talent-rich 76th running of the Churchill Downs, and all could be major players when the Breeders' Cup rolls around Nov. 6.

Musket Man, the top earner in the field, should draw close notice with Ramon Dominguez riding, and not only because he was the third-place finisher in the Derby last year. Musket Man is in excellent form, having been beaten a nose by Warrior's Reward after a tough early trip four Saturdays ago in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.

"I'd love to get a clean trip this time," trainer Derek Ryan said. "The horse has trained super since that last race, and an off track wouldn't bother him. I'm hoping to win and expecting to win."

With weather forecasters predicting a sloppy track, Munnings is a highly possible scratch, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

Run as a handicap until last year, the Churchill Downs now is governed by allowance conditions, with only Warrior's Reward carrying the 124-pound maximum. The race goes as the ninth and is a crucial link in numerous multi-race wagers Saturday.

Distaff Turf Mile: Focus on Fantasia

Fantasia, a multiple Group 3 winner in Europe at 2 and 3, will shoot for her first graded stakes success on this side of the Atlantic when she faces eight rivals in the Grade 2, $200,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile.

Fantasia's U.S. debut was eventful last month at Keeneland. She broke slowly, raced rankly, then finished with a nice turn of foot before falling a neck shy of defeating allowance company in her first start since finishing sixth in Newmarket's Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes more than six months earlier.

A regally bred daughter of Sadler's Wells trained by Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, Fantasia won a Group 3 race in England in her second start at 2 and again in her 3-year-old debut. She also has valuable experience over turf courses with some give in the ground, which should serve her well with a forecast that calls for heavy rain Friday night and into Saturday.

Trainer Todd Pletcher will try to get his Derby day off to a big start when he sends Phola in quest of her third straight victory. Phola followed a second-level allowance victory with a 4 1/4-length decision over Cure for Sale in the Grade 3 Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs on March 13. Cure for Sale will be among her seven rivals in the CD Turf Mile.

Tizaqueena, who won this race a year ago, has also won her last two starts, both stakes at the Fair Grounds. Diamondrella seeks to recapture her Grade 1 form for new trainer Jim Corrigan.

- Mike Welsch

Eight Belles: Hot Dixie Chick rolling

Last year, trainer Steve Asmussen spoiled the feel-good story of the newly named Eight Belles Stakes by sending out Four Gifts to a 7-2 upset of 9-5 favorite Just Jenda. Just Jenda was trained by Larry Jones, who had been the trainer of the ill-fated Eight Belles, for whom the La Troienne was renamed.

Saturday, Asmussen goes from hunter to hunted in the Grade 3, $100,000 Eight Belles at 7 1/2 furlongs, sending out the Grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick against six 3-year-old fillies.

After losing a maiden race here last May 14 to Decelerator by a half-length, Hot Dixie Chick has won her last four starts, including the Grade 3 Schuylerville and Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga, her final start at age 2.

Weather and track condition prevented Asmussen from doing much with Hot Dixie Chick during the winter, one reason she didn't make her seasonal debut until March 20, when she won the Prima Donna Stakes at Oaklawn by 5 3/4 lengths.

"She drew the 1-hole as is traditional for her, caught an off track - all the things that make you nervous as heck - and was good enough," Asmussen said. "She came through it well, and we got a race in her before something like this."

Robby Albarado rides Hot Dixie Chick from post 2.

Decelerator is making her fifth start of the year and is coming back three weeks after winning the Instant Racing Stakes at Oaklawn by a neck.

"She had a hell of a week, and it's a nice distance for her, but honestly, the favorite seems too tough," said D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Decelerator.

Completing the field are Visavis, Buckleupbuttercup, Bell's Shoes, Sister Resistor, and Kantstopdancin.

- David Grening