05/03/2005 12:00AM

Mustanfar ready for Woodford

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Of the 14 trainers with prospective starters in the 131st Kentucky Derby, Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping to have the hottest hand going in. And the way McLaughlin can accomplish that is by winning the race that directly precedes the Derby on the Saturday card at Churchill Downs, the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.

McLaughlin appears to stand an excellent chance: Mustanfar, a hard-charging 4-year-old, is one of the main contenders in the 19th running of the $400,000 Woodford Reserve.

"He is training very, very well," said McLaughlin, who, win or lose, will return soon after the Woodford Reserve to the Churchill paddock to saddle longshot Closing Argument in the Derby. "It's exciting not only to have a horse in the Derby, but also a horse you think can win a race like the Woodford Reserve."

Mustanfar, bred and owned by Shadwell Stable, tuned up for the 1 1/8-mile Woodford by breezing Tuesday on the Churchill turf, getting an easy five furlongs in 1:04.40 under exercise rider Danny Wright.

Mustanfar, a 4-year-old Unbridled colt with a classic grass pedigree on his dam's side, has developed a terrific late kick in major grass events. In his last start, he closed stoutly to finish third, beaten just a half-length, in the 1 3/8-mile Gulfstream Breeders' Cup.

"The thought is the pace will be faster at the nine furlongs of the Woodford compared to 11 furlongs at Gulfstream," said McLaughlin. "He's got a tremendous kick, and we're looking for him to really come running Saturday."

Besides Mustanfar, the probable field for the Woodford is America Alive, A to the Z, G P Fleet, Meteor Storm, Perfect Drift, Place Cowboy, Quest Star, Senor Swinger, and Sweet Return.

Entries for the Woodford, and all the Saturday undercard races, were to be drawn Wednesday afternoon, well before the Derby post-position drawn begins at 5 p.m. Eastern.

Forster aims high with Rugula

Training racehorses has been a hallmark of the Forster family of the Pacific Northwest for some 45 years. Dave Forster is a member of the Vancouver Racing Hall of Fame in Canada and has been a top trainer for years at Emerald Downs and the former Longacres in Washington.

But when longshot Rugula runs Friday in the 131st Kentucky Oaks, it could result in the greatest achievement in racing for the family. Grant Forster, Dave's 30-year-old son, is Rugula's trainer.

"It'd be great if we can pull it off," said Grant Forster, who has trained on his own for less than three years after working under his father.

Rugula, an $11,000 yearling purchase, was purchased privately for a low- to mid-six-figure fee by Al and Sandee Kirkwood early this year, after the filly began her career with two impressive wins in Chicago. She has raced three times for Forster and the Kirkwoods, all at Oaklawn Park, all resulting in runner-up finishes.

"She's got good speed, but hopefully Summerly and Sis City will hook up, and we can settle in right behind them," said Forster. "Then let's see if we're good enough."

Stevens shops for more business

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens got off to a fast start at the spring meet by riding three winners Saturday, including Don't Get Mad in the Derby Trial, then two more Sunday. But Stevens's agent, Craig O'Bryan, said his phone is hardly ringing off the hook.

"A lot of the claiming trainers aren't calling, I guess because they think we'll turn them down," said O'Bryan. "But that's not the case. Gary has given me the green light. I'm not saying we'll take every single mount we're offered, but we're willing to take a good look."

Stevens, who has committed to riding the entire spring meet through July 10, had no mounts on a 10-race Tuesday card that included nine claiming races.

Lady Tak to return in allowance

Lady Tak got her first win as a 4-year-old by beating four other fillies and mares in a classified allowance early in the 2004 Churchill spring meet. Trainer Steve Asmussen is hoping history repeats itself when Lady Tak makes her 5-year-old debut Thursday against four rivals in the third race, a $63,200 allowance.

"Hopefully this will get us moving in the right direction for the rest of the year," said Asmussen.

Lady Tak, an earner of $1.15 million, figures as a huge favorite in the six-furlong race.

* Following a tradition that began just a few years ago, Churchill will open its infield Thursday, meaning anyone looking for a three-day infield party can have at it. Churchill first opened the infield on Oaks Day in 1989. The first year for a Derby Day infield was 1938.

- additional reporting by David Grening