04/02/2009 12:00AM

Trainer risks perfect derby mark with Musket Man

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Irish import Derek Ryan has won two graded stakes races since he left life as a freelance exercise rider and sometime assistant trainer to train on his own. Emergency Status won the Jersey Derby in 2002, and Musket Man won the Tampa Bay Derby on March 14.

"I'm 2 for 2 in derbies," Ryan said.

Three for three looms a distinct possibility, as well, with Musket Man one of the principal players in Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Another big race, and Ryan might find himself in the Derby - the one in Kentucky.

"If he runs his race here, we'll probably have a good look at it," Ryan said.

Ryan and Musket Man left Tampa at 10 p.m. Tuesday, and expected to hit the Hawthorne backstretch around 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Ryan said he felt like he would never arrive, but Musket Man didn't appear bothered by the long van ride.

"He's doing good right now," Ryan said. "I'm looking at him on the monitor."

A long trip for sure - but Ryan's career-path has been longer. After working with horses in Ireland, England, France, and Germany, Ryan came to the U.S. in 1989 and kicked all over East Coast racetracks. In the winter of 1996, Ryan assisted trainer Joe Orseno in New York.

"He had two horses," Ryan said. "He stayed at Aqueduct with one, and I went to Florida with the other one."

Now, Ryan keeps about 10 horses year-round at Philadelphia Park; he had 16 head at Tampa this winter, and gets more 2-year-olds at the Monmouth meet. Musket Man, purchased privately after being entered in the Timonium 2-year-old in training sale of 2008, debuted at Belmont Park last October.

"We like to bet now and again, and you'll get some good pools in New York," Ryan said of the decision to ship Musket Man to a bigger stage first time out. "We knew it'd take a pretty good horse to beat him."

Musket Man won his debut (at odds of 5-1, thank you very much), and has only been beaten once in five starts, sandwiching a third in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa this winter between wins there in the Pasco and the Tampa Bay Derby. The loss came in Musket Man's two-turn debut, and the colt came back cut up on his hind legs from a rough run into the first turn.

Musket Man is by Yonaguska out of a Fortunate Prospect mare, a pedigree that would suggest limitations at distances longer than the Tampa Bay Derby's 1 1/16 miles. But Ryan says to weigh the individual over the pedigree in Musket Man's case.

"He's a big, powerful, and well-put -together," Ryan said.

Ryan noted that he trained Musket Man's half-sister Casablanca Babe, "and she won going a mile and an eighth."

Vic Carlson and Eric Fein own Musket Man (Fein had Big Truck in the 2008 Kentucky Derby), and they live in New York. But Musket Man is a May foal, and Ryan took a path of lesser resistant coming to Chicago rather than trying the $500,000 Wood Memorial on Saturday.

"The money's the same color in Chicago as it is in New York," Ryan said.

Provided you eventually get here.

Giant Oak still not totally focused

If only - the two words that define Giant Oak's 3-year-old campaign to date.

"If only" he hadn't gotten stopped cold in the Risen Star Stakes.

"If only" he hadn't fallen out the back door behind a slow pace, and spun his wheels over slop in the Louisiana Derby.

"If only" Todd Pletcher were running Illinois Derby entrant Lord Justice here at Hawthorne rather than in the Wood Memorial. Front-running Lord Justice would have ensured an honest pace for late-running Giant Oak. Now, the Mike Trombetta-trained Perfect Song looks like the only real pace.

"No doubt, there's less speed now," trainer Chris Block said. "I just hope Trombetta's horse doesn't get away on an easy lead."

Giant Oak arrived Monday at Hawthorne after wintering at Fair Grounds, where he breezed in the mud Saturday. He galloped for the first time over the Hawthorne track on Wednesday, and Block is hoping for a clean trip, an honest pace, and a focused performance from grand-looking and obviously talented Giant Oak.

"I think this horse is still - and it bugs me to think this - not totally focused yet," Block said. "I'm only going by what I see in the mornings. At some points he seems like he could give a crap that he's out there, and there's other days that he goes out and he's focused and he looks like a good horse."

Giant Oak's high-water mark was a fast-closing second to Beethoven in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall. That put him on the all-seeing Kentucky Derby radar, but Block said he never felt like he was training a Derby prospect.

"I have a hard time making him, quote-unquote, a horse on the Derby trail all of a sudden," Block said. "I didn't put him on any schedule to try and make it to the Kentucky Derby. It just was the natural progression for the horse to go to a race like the Risen Star, and here we are going into Saturday in the next race that makes sense to run him in."

Arlington offers bonus for big fields

Arlington Park will offer purse enhancements of up to 5 percent in overnight races if certain field-size targets are hit, the track announced Tuesday. A winning horse could earn $1,400 more in overnight stakes purse money if the race goes with a field of 12, under Arlington's new policy.

Smaller bonuses are offered for fields of 10 or 11 betting interests. Arlington's 2009 meet begins May 1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the extent of the field-size incentive program at the upcoming Arlington meet. It will apply to all overnight races, not just overnight stakes.