04/29/2008 11:00PM

Time off has Chelokee primed for big season

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - What was potentially the most sentimental story of the 2007 Kentucky Derby never came to fruition, because Michael Matz did not feel Chelokee was coming into the race exactly as he pleased. So, instead of trying to win the Derby for the second straight year, following Barbaro in 2006, Matz did what a good trainer does and put the horse ahead of his own self interests.

That priority list came into play again two months later, when Matz and Dr. Stephen Carr, a veterinarian who works for Centennial Farms, the partnership that owns Chelokee, decided it was best to give Chelokee an extended vacation and bring him back fresh as a 4-year-old.

"We took X-rays and couldn't find anything. He was just sore," Matz said at Churchill Downs. "He just needed time, and we also took out an undescended testicle that was never going to be functional."

The time off, and corrective surgery, apparently, has helped. Chelokee returned from a nine-month layoff with a sharp victory March 29 at Gulfstream Park, and Friday at Churchill Downs, he looms as the one to beat in the Grade 3, $150,000 Alysheba Stakes, part of the Kentucky Oaks undercard.

The Alysheba, at 1 1/16 miles, drew six others, including veteran stakes performers Magna Graduate and Wanderin Boy. But it may be Chelokee, 4, who is on his way up, while the others may be living on past glories.

"He's been training well. I'm hoping that, with the rest, he's now going to have a nice year as a handicap horse," Matz said. "He came back looking tremendous from the farm. I'm excited. Not that I want to run into Curlin right now, but I don't think too many do."

There's no Curlin in this race. Wanderin Boy, however, sometimes acts like Curlin when the track is wet. He is a superior off-track horse and won this race a year ago on a sloppy, sealed track. There is a chance of rain for Friday, which would boost his chances.

Magna Graduate is trying to end an eight-race losing streak.

- Jay Privman

Crown Royal: Prussian targets rebound

Bill Mott is hoping Prussian replicates the form he displayed in his first two starts last year when he meets 10 rivals in a wide-open renewal of the Grade 3, $150,000 Crown Royal American Turf for 3-year-olds on the turf.

Prussian won a maiden race at Saratoga and the Grade 3 Summer Stakes at Woodbine before catching an extremely soft turf course in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf where he finished 10th of 12. In his only start this year, Prussian finished fourth in the Grade 3 Transylvania, a race rained off the turf and run on Keeneland's Polytrack.

"He wound up on the lead; I guess there wasn't much speed in there," Mott said. "I think he got tired; he wasn't screwed down all the way and he had been off a long time. I'm looking for a little move forward just getting back on the grass."

John Velazquez will ride Prussian from post 8.

Cannonball returns to the turf after a sixth in the Lane's End run over Turfway's synthetic surface. Cannonball has 2 wins and 3 seconds from 5 turf starts. He finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf five days after winning the King Cugat Stakes at Belmont Park. Trainer Wesley Ward said he loves the way Cannonball has been training since the Lane's End.

"He should run the best race he's ever run based on his last few works," Ward said.

Halo Najib, who was excluded from the Kentucky Derby due to insufficient graded stakes earnings, makes his turf debut for trainer Dale Romans.

"He's worked good on it, he's out of a Sword Dancer mare, thought we would take a shot," Romans said. "We've won it twice, we'd like to win it again."

Boss Lafitte, Sailor's Cat, and Nistle's Crunch are all top contenders.

- David Grening

Edgewood: Grace and Power returns

As a world-renowned gourmet who was honored Thursday evening as grand marshal of the annual Pegasus Parade in downtown Louisville, Bobby Flay lends starpower to Derby weekend. For a few minutes Friday, however, trainer Steve Klesaris is hoping it will be a filly named Grace and Power - and not her owner, Flay - who will have everyone's attention at Churchill Downs.

Grace and Power, with Velazquez to ride, is one of nine 3-year-old fillies in the $150,000 Edgewood Stakes, the seventh race on the Kentucky Oaks card. Overall, the 1 1/16-mile turf race appears extremely well-matched, with no clear-cut favorite and no easy throwouts.

Grace and Power ended her 2-year-old season with three solid races, finishing third in the Epitome on Breeders' Cup weekend at Monmouth, second in the Selima at Laurel, and second in the Grade 1 Starlet at Hollywood.

"The Starlet was a good race for her," Klesaris said. "We just shut her down after that, and although I was actually targeting the [April 5] Ashland for her to come out, she popped a fresh splint about 10 days in front of it, so I had to stop and fire it and take care of her."

A series of bullet workouts at the Fair Hill training center suggests Grace and Power is primed to contend off the shelf. Her opposition consists of four horses coming off good races on the Keeneland turf - Holy Grace, Gypsy Baby, My Baby Baby, and Summer Courtship - as well as Zee Zee, Magger Bags, Clearly Foxy, and Valentine Fever.

The Edgewood dates to 1983 and counts Weekend Delight (1985), Luv Me Luv Me Not (1992), and Sweet Talker (2005) among its winners.

- Marty McGee

Aegon Turf Sprint: Mr. Nightlinger favored

Racing last month in the Grade 3 Shakertown going 5 1/2 furlongs on grass at Keeneland, Mr. Nightlinger, a horse with just one prior turf start, was dismissed by the betting public at odds of more than 21-1.

Less than three weeks later, following a winning performance in the Shakertown in which he outran eight-time stakes winner Smart Enough, he is expected to be one-tenth of that price when heads a field of eight in the Grade 3, $100,000 Aegon Turf Sprint. He is the 2-1 morning-line favorite against a field that includes Atticus Kristy, Demarcation, Salute the Count, and Indian Ashton.

The reason for his price plummeting is obvious. In winning the April 13 Shakertown, Mr. Nightlinger defeated a more accomplished field and covered 5 1/2 furlongs on turf in 1:03.84, a quick time over a wet course rated good. He also showed determination, turning back Smart Enough in midstretch to pull away to a 1 3/4-length victory.

The question in the Turf Sprint is whether he can repeat that performance, avoiding regression off the best performance of his 14-race career.

"He ran 101 Beyer and a 5 on the [Ragozin] sheets," said trainer Bret Calhoun. "Common sense tells you he could bounce. But let's hope it's the grass that is his calling and he is going to get better."

Jamie Theriot rides Mr. Nightlinger, a 4-year-old son of Indian Charlie, for owners Carl Moore Management and Martin Racing Stable.

Indian Ashton heads the opposition. A specialist at the five-furlong distance of the Turf Sprint, he comes off a close runner-up finish in the April 5 California Turf Sprint Championship at Bay Meadows behind Bonfante, whose winning time of 56.28 seconds set a course record for five furlongs.

- Byron King