02/13/2008 1:00AM

Turf War tries to step into spotlight


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The list of top Derby contenders doesn't currently include Turf War, whose biggest accomplishment to date is a dead-heat win in the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Jackpot. But behind the scenes, the promising 3-year-old is collecting the support of some respected horsemen as he nears his season debut Monday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Calvin Borel, who won last year's Kentucky Derby aboard Street Sense, has chosen to ride Turf War in the Southwest over another top contender. And just recently, Will Farish, the owner of Lane's End Farm who is one of Turf War's breeders, and George Bolton, who last year co-owned Horse of the Year Curlin, each bought quarter interests in Turf War from Woodford Racing.

Turf War's stock rose a bit more last weekend, when his full brother Grasshopper showed himself to be a player in the handicap ranks with an eye-catching win in the Grade 3 Mineshaft at Fair Grounds. Turf War also has the benefit of residing in one of North America's hottest barns. His trainer, Mark Casse, 47, not only churned out a personal-best $6.3 million in stable earnings in 2007, but also trained Canada's Horse of the Year, Sealy Hill.

As for Turf War, his dead-heat win with Z Humor in the Jackpot secured him enough graded earnings to run in the Kentucky Derby should the field be oversubscribed. He began looking like a horse with that kind of promise last fall, as things came together for him in the weeks leading up to the Delta Jackpot.

"He started training like a good horse, and he's continued to train like a good horse since that race," said Casse. "This horse has a pedigree that says he should get better and better. If that's the case and he does, he's going to be a very serious horse this spring and summer. At least that's what I'm hoping."

Turf War, a winner of 3 of 5 starts and $518,548, is a May foal by Dixie Union out of the Mr. Prospector mare Grass Skirt. He won his maiden in his second start last August at Woodbine, and a month later captured the $125,000 Swynford Stakes. Turf War was then off the board in the Grade 3 Grey Breeders' Cup before bouncing back with a big score in the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Vinton, La., on Dec. 7. After a slow start in the 1 1/16-mile race, he closed from 20 lengths back for his dead-heat win on Delta's bullring.

"When you're running around a three-quarters-of-a-mile track, I'm telling you, you don't come from that far back," said Borel, who rode Turf War for the first time in the Jackpot. "In a sixteenth of a mile I went from last to first, and that was very, very, very impressive."

Borel noted the race was also Turf War's first on conventional dirt, after having raced exclusively on Polytrack. Turf War earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 96 for the win.

Following the Jackpot, Turf War was freshened in Ocala, Fla.

Borel added he is eager to see the colt, whom Casse places at 16-2 hands tall and approximately 1,000 pounds, run over Oaklawn's one-mile oval Monday.

"That will make all the difference in the world," Borel said of the larger track. "The big, sweeping turns, you know. He's such a big colt."

Casse, who was in need of a rider for the Jackpot when suitable travel arrangements could not be made for five-time Canadian champion Patrick Husbands, turned to Borel in part because he had ridden Grasshopper before, winning an allowance on the colt at Saratoga. For the Southwest, Borel and his longtime agent, Jerry Hissam, had to choose between Turf War and the undefeated Denis of Cork.

Hissam said factors that went into the decision included Turf War handling dirt, a smaller oval, and racing under the lights - all for the first time in the Jackpot. He also noted that the horse is a multiple stakes winner, and the graded earnings he has should be more than ample to secure him a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

With the $400,000 in graded earnings from the Jackpot, Casse and Bill Farish, the son of Will Farish who heads Woodford Racing, have some breathing space in figuring the best path to get Turf War to his spring goal of the Kentucky Derby. He could continue on Oaklawn's three-race series for 3-year-olds, which begins with the Southwest and continues with the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel on March 15, and the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.

"I would say more than likely, if things went just as planned, we would probably only run in two of the races," said Casse. "He had enough racing at 2, so we don't need a lot of racing for seasoning. All we're trying to do is get a healthy, happy horse to the Derby."