03/24/2009 11:00PM

Ward puts no pressure on Beethoven

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Monarchos was still a maiden when he arrived in south Florida during the winter of 2001. He would ultimately go on to win three straight races at Gulfstream Park, including the Grade 1 Florida Derby as a prelude to equaling the stakes record in the Kentucky Derby later that spring.

Eight years later, trainer John Ward will try to win the Kentucky Derby again. This time, it's with Beethoven, a horse who so far very little resembles Monarchos.

Unlike Monarchos, Beethoven was already a proven commodity when he arrived here this winter. As a 2-year-old, Beethoven won 3 of 5 starts, including the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill. And while he hasn't run badly in his two starts here at the meet, he certainly has not had the success Monarchos enjoyed over the Gulfstream strip eight years ago.

As a result, Beethoven will head into Saturday's Florida Derby flying a bit under the radar when up against the more publicized trio of Dunkirk, Quality Road, and Theregoesjojo.

"It's fine with me that we seem to be getting very little respect," Ward said. "I like the hype being someplace else."

Ward will also bring Beethoven, who finished a distant third behind Quality Road and Theregoesjojo in the Fountain of Youth, into the Florida Derby in a somewhat unorthodox manner. He's coming off a pedestrian five-furlong work of 1:09.80 over a sloppy track here last Saturday morning.

"I'm just kind of galloping him into the race," said Ward. "I was going to work him slow anyway; he's already had a five-furlong and six-furlong work since the Fountain of Youth, and being he worked in the mud it made me even more cautious."

Ward is looking forward to another improved effort from Beethoven in the Florida Derby and said winning the race, as he did with Monarchos in 2001, would only be an added bonus.

"They don't put your name up in lights for winning the Florida Derby," said Ward. "But I think the field size and pace scenario are good for us. The main thing I'm looking for is for him to improve again. His numbers have gone up each time he's run. I just want him to step up again and leave me a little something to step up to one more time on Derby Day."

Beethoven has improved his Beyer Speed Figures in each of his last six starts, from the 80 he earned winning his maiden in September to a 97 for his third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth.

The main thing Ward needs for Beethoven to accomplish in the Florida Derby is to pick up some additional graded stakes earnings to assure his spot in the Derby field. Beethoven is currently 20th on the list with slightly more than $132,000 in graded earnings, a figure that traditionally would not be enough to make the Derby lineup.

"Churchill Downs took some money away from the Kentucky Jockey Club last year," said Ward. "As a result, isn't it ironic that the horse who won a race Churchill sponsors in England automatically gets into the Derby field while the horse who won their premier 2-year-old race might not get in?"

Pletcher's Derby prospects spread out

While Dunkirk is obviously trainer Todd Pletcher's leading Kentucky Derby candidate, he also has several other 3-year-olds on the Derby trail, including Take the Points, Al Khali, Join in the Dance, and Lord Justice.

Take the Points is currently stabled at Santa Anita but Pletcher said there's a good chance the Sham runner-up will head back east for his final Derby prep.

"He's at Santa Anita right now and in position to run in the Santa Anita Derby if there's a defection or two," said Pletcher. "If not he'll run in the Blue Grass."

Al Khali, a game winner of his U.S. debut going nine furlongs here earlier this month, is currently targeted for the Wood Memorial in New York on April 4 although those plans are not totally etched in stone. Al Khali worked five furlongs in 1:00.80 at Palm Meadows on Monday morning.

"He worked super this morning," Pletcher said late Monday afternoon. "And right now we're pointing him for the Wood although I still have to confer with the WinStar people later this week."

Pletcher said he's looking at either the Arkansas Derby or Lexington for Join in the Dance and the Illinois Derby for Lord Justice. Join in the Dance turned in a surprisingly good effort finishing second behind Musket Man when stretching out around two turns for the first time in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. Lord Justice is coming off an impressive allowance victory in his 3-year-old debut at Aqueduct.

Pletcher was also pleased with Checklist, who splashed to a one-length allowance victory going seven furlongs here last Saturday. Checklist, who launched his career with an impressive win early in the meet, bounced back from a disappointing effort as a 3-5 favorite in his previous start. During that race, he twisted a shoe after stumbling at the break.

"His race on Saturday was more of what we expected from him," said Pletcher. "He had a legitimate excuse the race before and it was nice to see him bounce back and run to our expectations."

Pletcher said Checklist, who like Take the Points is owned by Starlight Partners, would make his next start opening day at Churchill Downs in the Derby Trial.

Cribnote nearly ready to race

Cribnote, who has not started since finishing third in the Grade 1 Champagne on Oct. 4, is off the Derby trail but about ready to make his much anticipated 3-year-old debut, according to trainer Rick Violette.

"He had some issues which forced us to miss some training so obviously we're too far behind to make the Derby," said Violette. "But he's about ready to run and I'll probably look for an allowance race for him within the next couple of weeks."

Laragh on target for Comely

Laragh, who finished third while beaten just a length after setting the pace in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, boarded a van bound for New York on Sunday. She will make her 3-year-old debut in Aqueduct's Grade 2 Comely on April 11.

Laragh has not started since capturing the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet over the synthetic track at Hollywood Park on Dec. 13. The Comely will mark her first start on dirt.

"She's doing wonderful and on target at the moment for the Kentucky Oaks," said trainer John Terranova. "Originally we were going to send her to Keeneland for the Ashland but with Stardom Bound heading in that direction we decided to keep the two of them separate for now since both fillies are owned, in part, by IEAH Stables.

"The timing of the Comely is great for her. It's also a one-turn mile and with her speed it looks like the perfect race to bring her back."