04/10/2009 11:00PM

New focus propels Musket Man to Derby

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - There is an air of excitement on the backstretch these days as Musket Man prepares for the Kentucky Derby after having spent the winter at Tampa Bay Downs.

Musket Man arrived with the rest of the Derek Ryan stable in late November and trained here until heading north to win the Illinois Derby.

Having trained at Tampa for several seasons, Ryan knew the winter weather here would ensure that his colt's training would be uninterrupted and that the safe and somewhat sandy racing surface would provide Musket Man with a strong foundation in fitness for the tough races that lie ahead in the spring.

But while Ryan knew he had a colt of some quality, he admitted Saturday that it was up to Musket Man to show his handlers that he was Triple Crown-quality.

"We knew we had a colt of some substance last summer at Monmouth, but as is the case with many 3-year-olds, we also had a young horse that was still learning to put things together," the Irish-born Ryan said. "Like any kid, sometimes he would get lazy and goof off, and our main chore was learning what made him want to run and compete.

"We learned that he likes to have a target to run at, another horse to go after. If he gets off by himself, he loses interest, so we've been working all winter to get his focus sharpened, to get him zeroed in on the competiton."

Ryan's work paid off when Musket Man overcame trouble in the Tampa Derby.

"He ran into some traffic in that race and could have easily packed it in, but he picked himself up in the stretch and went after the leader and eventually got the job done," Ryan said.

In the Illinois Derby, Musket Man tracked the leader and moved to the front once urged by jockey Eibar Coa. The performance gives Ryan confidence for the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm sure with 20 horses, we're going to have horses to run at, now it's just a case of seeing if he's up to the task," he said. "When we came down to Tampa, we said we would let him tell us whether he belonged with the big guys. I think he earned his chance with his efforts in his last two starts. He's matured a great deal in the past six months. He's not a boy anymore, he's a young man and continues to get better as time goes on."

Musket Man has settled in on the Churchill Downs backstretch and has been getting used to the track surface in recent days.

"We'll probably work him next weekend," Ryan said. "Right now, we're just in a maintenance mode. He's pretty fit, now it's just a job of keeping him happy and healthy until May 2nd."

* General Quarters, who won the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, also was based at Tampa this winter. He will now be pointed to the Derby by trainer Thomas McCarthy.

* Starship Supreme, from the Michael Passero barn, overcame a tough outside post in a

10-horse allowance field to score going a mile on turf April 5. Starship Supreme went to the front early, and after covering six furlongs in a blistering 1:10.86, had enough to hold off the competition and come away with a 2 3/4-length win, his second victory on the turf this meeting.

* Speaking of hot on the turf, trainer Dennis Manning's turf runners have been nothing short of spectacular this meeting. Manning has won with six of his 12 starters on the turf and also has a pair of second-place finishes.