10/01/2009 11:00PM

Ohio Derby is Gone Astray's best option


Following a nine-length victory in a $1 million race, you would think Gone Astray would be prepping for the Breeders' Cup in one of those big-money races this weekend or next.

You would be wrong on a couple of counts. Shug McGaughey, the Hall of Fame trainer of Gone Astray, has opted for the $150,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown on Saturday instead of the $500,000 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park. Moreover, McGaughey isn't pointing Gone Astray to any of the Nov. 6-7 Breeders' Cup events, having circled the Nov. 21 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct as the colt's next probable start.

McGaughey said he feared the ongoing strangles situation at Hoosier "might've gotten my horse stuck there," which resulted in the Ohio Derby getting a solid favorite in Gone Astray, who broke out with a career-best effort in romping to victory in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park in his last start Sept. 7.

"Ever since I ran him around two turns, he's been a different horse," said McGaughey. "I thought he had a big chance at Philly Park, but you couldn't have said before the race he'd win as impressively as he did. He came out of the race good, and we're looking forward to having him run another big one."

Gone Astray, a Phipps Stable homebred with Eddie Castro back aboard, will break from post 2 in a field of 13 3-year-olds entered in the Grade 2 Ohio Derby, the annual showcase at Thistledown near Cleveland. Gone Astray is the morning-line favorite at 8-5, but with possible defections from the field because of cross-entries, the colt might well be a substantially lower price in the 1 1/8-mile race.

The 5-1 second choice on the morning line is Giant Oak, but there is some question as to whether he will actually start. Winner of the Arlington Classic in May, Giant Oak is one of five horses also entered in the Indiana Derby. The others cross-entered in both races are Petch, Karama, Hoopoe, and Fundy.

Like McGaughey, some trainers have eyed the Indiana Derby cautiously because of the quarantine situation with the equine disease strangles. Horses are free to come and go at Hoosier, but tracks in at least one other state, Kentucky, have placed temporary restrictions on the return of horses that race there.

Giant Oak or no, other logical challengers to Gone Astray in the 75th Ohio Derby include Join in the Dance, who was second in the Pennsylvania Derby, and Gallant, winner of the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie in July.

The Ohio Derby was announced as being canceled for this year when Thistledown released its 2009 stakes schedule in late March because of the dire financial problems being experienced by the track and its owner, Magna Entertainment Corp. But in August the Ohio Racing Commission ordered the race reinstated, and Thistledown complied while cutting the purse in half from the usual $300,000 to $150,000, the minimum for a race to retain its Grade 2 ranking.

First post for the nine-race card is 1:20 p.m. Eastern, with the Ohio Derby, the eighth, set for 5.

The Ohio Derby anchors the Best of Ohio program, the richest day of racing each year in the state. Five other stakes, each worth $75,000 or $100,000, are carded as races 3 through 7.