05/27/2008 11:00PM

Ohio Derby offers link to last year's winner


One year after the trainer Pete Anderson won the Ohio Derby with the only horse in his stable, Delightful Kiss, there is another feel-good story waiting to happen on the biggest afternoon of the season at Thistledown, just outside Cleveland.

Installed as the 2-1 favorite from post 1 at the Ohio Derby post position draw early Wednesday afternoon was Smooth Air, the pride and joy of 70-year-old trainer Bennie Stutts.

Stutts, like Anderson, is based in Florida, and though he trains more than one horse, the Stutts operation is small. But the link from 2007 to 2008 goes even deeper. Stutts knows Anderson from Anderson's days as an East Coast-based jockey. In fact, Anderson rode for Stutts' father, Bennie Stutts Sr., as far back as 1948, when the younger Stutts was a 10-year-old.

"He won eight races in a row on a horse of my father's," Stutts recalled.

Smooth Air, who shipped to Thistledown from Arlington Park on Tuesday and was out for a gallop Wednesday, was one of eight horses entered in Saturday's Ohio Derby, a 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 race with a $300,000 purse. His main rival appears to be Z Fortune, who finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby, one place ahead of Smooth Air. With Garrett Gomez named to ride for Steve Asmussen, Z Fortune was installed as the 5-2 second choice, but could go off favored.

The rest of the field, from the inside out, consists of Medjool, Your Round, Instill, Stolen Chevy, Celtic Meal, and Cherokee Artist.

Stutts sent two horses, Smooth Air and Cubs Fan, to train this summer at Arlington. The lure for Cubs Fan was the Arlington grass course. For Smooth Air, Chicago offered a better hub than Calder from which to ship to various derbies. Sunday, Smooth Air had his major work for Saturday's race, going a swift seven furlongs on Arlington's Polytrack.

While Smooth Air's rail draw is not ideal, Stutts said he wasn't overly concerned with it.

"I'd probably rather have the middle, but I don't think in a light field it will make that much difference," he said.

Stutts' father generally wintered in Florida and summered at Arlington back in his heyday, but there were various side-trips on which he was accompanied by his family. In the spring of 1957, for instance, Stutts Jr. found himself at the old Ascot Park in Cleveland under less than accommodating circumstances.

"I had to shovel snow for three days just to get into the stalls," Stutts said.

No snow in Saturday's local forecast, just a chance of thunderstorms - and Smooth Air.