08/01/2012 1:27PM

West Virginia Derby: Le Bernardin faces big challenge at Mountaineer

Barbara D. Livingston
Le Bernardin will take on Hansen in Saturday's West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer.

Kiaran McLaughlin has a healthy respect for the Eclipse Award that Hansen earned last year as a 2-year-old. That’s a primary reason McLaughlin would accept something less than a victory Saturday when he sends out Le Bernardin against Hansen in the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park in Chester, W.Va.

“I’d like to take second money right now, if you’d guarantee it to me,” McLaughlin said.

Le Bernardin, a near-the-pace winner of the Grade 3 Pegasus under veteran jockey Mike Luzzi in his latest race at Monmouth Park, figures as second choice to an odds-on Hansen in a field of 10 3-year-olds entered in the 43rd running of the West Virginia Derby. Both colts are drawn toward the outside of the starting gate for the 1 1/8-mile race – Le Bernardin, with Luzzi back, got post 7, while Hansen, with Mike Smith to ride for the first time, got post  9 – making for some interesting speculation about early tactics.

“I’ll let Mike figure out what he wants to do after the break,” McLaughlin said. “On paper, I’d like to be forwardly placed – but I don’t want to be too forwardly placed, if you know what I mean. It looks like Hansen will go, and there’s a sprinter [Bourbon Courage] in there that could be up there, too. I just don’t want to get too involved early if it helps us at the end. I mean, Hansen is tough and if he wins easy, I don’t want to be the one chasing him all the way and end up, say, fifth.”

Le Bernardin is owned by the Darley Stable of Sheikh Mohammed, whose powerhouse Godolphin outfit teamed with McLaughlin to win the Jim Dandy at Saratoga last weekend with their homebred standout, Alpha. Le Bernardin, by Bernardini, has won 3 of 5 overall starts and has yet to face top-class competition, and McLaughlin is not inclined to run him back in the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes.

[WEST VIRGINIA DERBY: Get PPs and watch Saturday’s full card live]

“You never know, but we do have Alpha for the Travers,” he said. “We’ve had the West Virginia race in mind for this colt for quite a while now. We’re just hoping he runs his race Saturday.”

After Hansen, the 3-5 favorite on the morning line, Mountaineer has pegged Le Bernardin as a 6-1 co-second choice with Macho Macho (post 4, Corey Nakatani). Trained by Steve Asmussen, who already has won the West Virginia Derby three times, Macho Macho most recently was a fast-closing second in the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth.

Although there are no stable couplings, two trainers have two runners apiece in the race: Mike Maker runs Hansen and Morgan’s Guerilla, while Gennadi Dorochenko is scheduled to start Macho Bull and Hero of Order.

Two jockeys are named on double calls, but those were to be resolved Thursday morning. Eddie Martin Jr. was named on both Dorochenko horses, and Leandro Goncalves on Morgan’s Guerilla and California shipper Called to Serve.

The West Virginia Derby goes as the eighth of nine races on an all-stakes Saturday card, with purses totaling $1.65 million. First post is 2 p.m. Eastern, with the feature going at 5:45. Live television coverage is being provided on a one-hour broadcast (5-6 p.m.) by Fox Sports regional outlets, with Kenny Rice, Kurt Hoover, and Millie Ball handling the commentary.