04/22/2014 11:49AM

Stewart finds himself on Kentucky Derby bubble again

Barbara D. Livingston
Commanding Curve, shown at Churchill Downs on Tuesday, is one spot away from getting into the Kentucky Derby.

Dallas Stewart went into last month’s Louisiana Derby knowing that a one-two finish with his runner Commanding Curve would put him in the field for the 140th Kentucky Derby.

Those dreams were dealt a serious blow the first jump out of the gate, when Commanding Curve was mugged by Rise Up. Commanding Curve did well to rally for third, giving him 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. At the time, it looked like that might not be enough to get into the Derby, but defections by horses with more points – including Toast of New York, Constitution, Midnight Hawk, and Cairo Prince – have left Commanding Curve, as of Tuesday, officially just one spot away from securing a Derby berth.

Stewart remains hopeful that Commanding Curve can get in, and his anxiety is assuaged by having climbed a much higher hill a year ago with Golden Soul.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Last year marked the first Derby that Churchill Downs switched to a points system after three decades of using graded stakes earnings to determine the field. Golden Soul had a mere 14 points after his final prep, a fourth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby. He just did get into the Derby, then ran second to Orb at odds of 34-1.

“It kind of all fell apart last year, and there’s a chance it could happen this year, too,” Stewart said Tuesday from his barn at Churchill Downs. “There are some behind us hoping to get in, too.

“We knew that if he ran at least second in the Louisiana Derby, he was in. When he finished third, we knew it was risky business. It’s unfortunate some horses get hurt. You hate to see it. But you have to be ready if given the opportunity. You have to be ready if your number’s called, like any sport.”

Commanding Curve has run twice this year. He was sixth under Robby Albarado in the Risen Star Stakes in February prior to the Louisiana Derby.

“He finished really good,” Stewart said. “Robby said he didn’t mind the dirt, didn’t mind the traffic.”

Albarado has committed to Medal Count, the Blue Grass Stakes runner-up, for the Derby, so Stewart has secured Shaun Bridgmohan for Commanding Curve. Last fall, Commanding Curve scored the lone win of his six-race career over maidens at Churchill Downs with Bridgmohan aboard.

“When you have a 2-year-old that wins a two-turn, mile-and-a-sixteenth race at Churchill Downs in the fall, it makes you feel really good,” Stewart said.

Stewart has yet to win the Derby, but he was an integral part of the team that prepared the filly Winning Colors for her Derby victory in 1988. Stewart, who eventually rose to be an assistant trainer with D. Wayne Lukas, was the exercise rider for Winning Colors at Churchill Downs after she arrived from Santa Anita.

“She was a special horse,” he said. “I had never been around a horse like that. She was a real tough horse. She trained beautiful for the race.”

Commanding Curve has had two works since the Louisiana Derby, both at Churchill Downs, including a strong five-furlong drill in 1:00.40 last Friday. His final work will be Friday or Saturday, depending on the weather, Stewart said.

“We saw with the points situation last year that a lot of things can happen,” Stewart said. “You just have to keep your emotions down and train your horse.”

The horse currently in the top 20 with the shakiest prospects of remaining in the Derby field is Chitu, who is scheduled to run Saturday in the Derby Trial. He is ranked 12th, with 54 points.

Harry’s Holiday, tied on points with Commanding Curve but ranked higher, at 20th, owing to the tie-breaker (earnings in nonrestricted stakes), is certain for the race, trainer Mike Maker said Tuesday, though a jockey assignment has not been made.

Entries for the Derby are taken April 30, and posts are drawn later that day. In addition to the maximum of 20 in the main body of the race, up to four also-eligibles can be entered. Scratch time is 9 a.m. on May 2, the day before the Derby.