05/31/2008 12:00AM

Smooth Air pulls away in Ohio Derby


Septuagenarian trainer Bennie Stutts has been saying for weeks how much it meant to him to just have his first-ever starter in the Kentucky Derby. Yes, Smooth Air finished 11th in the race, but Stutts has been around the racetrack forever, training few horses to be mentioned in the same breath with "Kentucky Derby."

But it turns out Smooth Air's run in the first leg of the Triple Crown had a more pedestrian purpose: It set him up perfectly to win the Ohio Derby on Saturday at Thistledown.

Tracking a fast pace while racing along the fence under Manoel Cruz, Smooth Air came out for his run around the far turn and pushed past Cherokee Artist to win the Ohio Derby by four lengths.

The winner's share of a $300,000 purse gave Smooth Air almost $600,000 in career earnings, which makes him the most successful racehorse Stutts has trained in a career spanning a great part of the 20th century.

Smooth Air had all kinds of early trouble at Churchill, but was away smoothly from the fence in Saturday's Grade 2 race, the highlight of the Thistledown season. Longshot Celtic Meal cut across the field from post 6 to set the early pace, and it was a strong one, with an opening quarter-mile in 22.52 seconds and the first half in 46.34. Cherokee Artist, well bet from the start of the wagering off a Churchill Downs maiden win, raced closest to the early pace among three horses taking betting action in the race, with favored Z Fortune racing in behind the first flight of runners.

Smooth Air briefly lost position around the half-mile but was angled out to take aim on Cherokee Artist, who inherited the lead when Celtic Meal stopped. Cherokee Artist fought back, as Z Humor's inside run petered out in the stretch, but Smooth Air, bred and owned by Mount Joy Stables, was resolute and was clearly best at the finish. He was timed in 1:50.26 for 1 1/8 miles and paid $5.80 to win. Z Fortune checked in a well-beaten third, with late-running Medjool fourth.