09/15/2009 11:00PM

Soul Warrior now one to beat

Barbara D. Livingston
"We liked him all winter, but he really hadn't put it together until lately," trainer Steve Asmussen said of Soul Warrior.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - Soul Warrior became a sudden 3-year-old of interest last month when he upset Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby. Saturday at Louisiana Downs, he will attempt to build on that accomplishment. Soul Warrior is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Grade 2, $750,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs - a far cry from his 23-1 odds at Mountaineer Park.

The West Virginia Derby was a peak race for Soul Warrior, who earlier this year had earned minor awards while facing Friesan Fire in the Grade 3 Risen Star and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He was idle for about 10 weeks after that, but returned in a strong way June 2 at Churchill Downs. Soul Warrior was a clear winner of a first-level allowance at a mile at Churchill Downs in his first start back, then two races later sprang the huge upset in the West Virginia Derby and earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 95.

"We liked him all winter, but he really hadn't put it together until lately," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Soul Warrior for Zayat Stables. "We fired a splint after the Louisiana Derby, gave him a little time. He ran gangbusters in the a-other-than, was second in the Iowa Derby, and got really lucky in the West Virginia Derby."

Soul Warrior surged to win a photo over odds-on favorite Big Drama, who was loose on the lead for much of the race as Soul Warrior found himself some 12 lengths back at one point. The official winning margin was a neck, while it was another 1 1/2 lengths back to Mine That Bird in third.

Soul Warrior was then set to start in the Grade 2, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 7, but he spiked a temperature and was scratched. His connections later targeted the Super Derby.

John Velazquez will ride Soul Warrior, a son of Lion Heart who was purchased for $290,000 as a 2-year-old in training at Ocala in March 2008. The horse is one of two Super Derby representatives for Asmussen, the leading trainer in North America.

His other entrant, Uno Mas, won the local prep for the race when he surged for a neck win in the $100,000 Prelude on Aug. 15. In addition to the first-place check of $60,000, he earned a free berth into the Super Derby. The value of the berth is $8,500, a sum that includes a $1,000 nomination fee to the race, $3,750 to pass the entry box, and $3,750 to start, according to Tommy Sibille, the stakes coordinator for Louisiana Downs. Asmussen said Shane Sellers has the mount on Uno Mas, who races for Bob and Cathy Zollars and Mark Wagner.

Former announcers on hand for TVG

Chris Kotulak and Frank Mirahmadi, both former announcers at Louisiana Downs, will return to the track Saturday to cover the Super Derby as hosts for the Television Games Network. The men each spent six seasons in the announcer's booth in Bossier City. They are now based in Southern California.

"My first Super Derby was in 1994, when Concern fell just short of catching Soul of the Matter," said Kotulak. "He moved too late then, but I cashed a nice bet on him in his next start, when he won the Breeders' Cup Classic."

Mirahmadi's first Super Derby was Tiznow's in 2000.

"It was my first chance to call a Grade 1 race, and he was spectacular," he said.

Mirahmadi now works as the race caller for the California Authority of Racing Fairs and Turf Paradise in addition to his host and analyst duties with TVG.

Sumo out, but Hancock still in

Sumo, an Arthur Hancock homebred who had been under serious consideration for the Super Derby, passed on the race when entries were taken on Wednesday. However, it looks like Hancock will still have something of a role in this year's Super Derby. He is the co-breeder of Massone, a Ron McAnally trainee who races for Frankfurt Stable.

It's a special anniversary for Hancock, who 20 years ago this week won the $1 million Super Derby with Sunday Silence.

"Back then, the market had crashed and we had a lot of land and owed a lot of money and it seemed like a gift from God," said Hancock, who co-owned the horse. "And then Charlie turned and said, 'He's sitting just right for the Breeders' Cup.' "

One start later, Sunday Silence proved the late trainer Charlie Whittingham right, and won the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Sunday Silence would later be voted 1989 Horse of the Year.