Updated on 09/16/2011 6:57AM

Stars jockey for position


NEW ORLEANS - With the Kentucky Derby now just 57 days away, the chess game has begun. Trainers keep one eye on their horses, another on the horses they fear, trying to find the best spot. Trainers and jockeys are doing a pas de deux, the trainers looking for replacements in case they are needed, the jockeys looking for better mounts in case their current lot does not pan out. And each race takes on greater importance, since, beginning this weekend, most Derby runners will have just two more preps before May 4.

There was a flurry of activity on Wednesday, with jockeys like Chris McCarron and Edgar Prado hedging their bets, and trainer David Hofmans making contingency plans. Even those connected with horses regarded as the division's leaders are not immune to the machinations. For instance Siphonic, the top-ranked horse on Derby Watch, may need a new rider by Derby Day.

The next round of races - such as this weekend's Louisiana Derby and El Camino Real Derby, and next weekend's Florida Derby, Gotham Stakes, and San Felipe Stakes - are the quarterfinals. The pressure is mounting slowly but relentlessly.

"It's time," trainer Todd Pletcher said, "to find out if you've got a horse good enough to go to the big dance."

Sunday's $750,000 Louisiana Derby here at Fair Grounds features Repent, whose quest for the Derby already has resulted in a change of riders. Jerry Bailey rides Repent for the first time, replacing Tony D'Amico, who won the Risen Star Stakes with Repent. D'Amico also lost the mount on Harlan's Holiday, who, like Repent, is trained by Ken McPeek.

McPeek said he told Repent's owners, Feye and Jerry Bach, that he was "not comfortable having a first-time Derby rider on a horse with so much talent." So, D'Amico was out, and Bailey was in. "Personally, it was a difficult decision. Professionally, it was easy," McPeek said.

Bailey also has been the regular rider on Siphonic, who is scheduled to run in the San Felipe on March 17 at Santa Anita, and Blue Burner, who runs next in the Florida Derby. But since Bailey has since picked up the mount on Repent, Siphonic's trainer, Hofmans, is making plans in case Bailey jumps ship down the line. Bailey will ride Siphonic in the San Felipe, but when Siphonic worked at Hollywood Park on Wednesday, McCarron was up. McCarron is expanding his options, too, in case Came Home and the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles are mutually exclusive.

"I know Chris will probably have to ride Came Home in the Santa Anita Derby, but since Bailey is riding Repent this weekend, I need to be prepared. We'll see how things develop," Hofmans said after Siphonic sped seven furlongs in 1:24.40. "Chris has ridden Siphonic before, so I wanted his evaluation. I'm very happy. He got a little tired. He needed it."

Siphonic will be sent by van from Hollywood to Santa Anita on Saturday, Hofmans said. The colt will train at Santa Anita for a week, with his final workout scheduled for Tuesday. He also will school in both the paddock and the starting gate, Hofmans said, in hopes of avoiding the awkward start that compromised Siphonic's chances last time out in the Santa Catalina Stakes.

Prado, who will replace D'Amico on Harlan's Holiday in the Florida Derby, blew off a day of racing at Gulfstream on Wednesday in order to travel to Santa Anita to work another of his Derby prospects, Mayakovsky. That colt zipped seven furlongs in 1:24.20 in preparation for the one-mile Gotham.

"He's a good horse. The question is not quality. The only question is how far he will go," said Patrick Biancone, who trains Mayakovsky. "In the work he showed nothing to make me think he would not handle it, but until they run, you do not know."

Mayakovsky will fly to New York next Friday, two days before the March 17 Gotham.

D'Amico, in the meantime, has picked up the mount on Perfect Drift, who finished second in last week's Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and runs next in the Lane's End Spiral Stakes on March 23. But his position on that colt is not assured. Murray Johnson, who trains Perfect Drift, said he first thought about replacing D'Amico when he assumed D'Amico would be tied up with either Repent or Harlan's Holiday. Now, Johnson said, there is a temptation to get a better-known rider for the Derby, especially when he sees other trainers trying to get better riders for their horses.

"I'm sure we'll keep him for the Spiral," Johnson said, "but we had thought if we got this far, we'd probably have to make a change. Nothing against Tony. If we make a change, it would be to get one of the best, not just to make a change. It's a tough decision."

Nothing's easy at this stage.

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

- Trainer Bill Mott said Blue Burner will add blinkers for the Florida Derby.

- Saratoga Blues worked four furlongs in 46.60 seconds at Laurel in preparation for the March 17 Gotham. Harlan's Holiday (Florida Derby next) and Sunday Break (San Felipe) also worked.

- Danthebluegrassman is bypassing the San Felipe for the El Camino Real Derby because, trainer Bob Baffert said, "this gives me more options" and "I still have a lot of respect for Siphonic."