04/27/2010 11:00PM

Zito walks a tricky line with Ice Box


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Barbaro and Big Brown brought down the notion that a five-week break between a final prep race and the Kentucky Derby was too long to let a 3-year-old sit. So five weeks is doable - but what about six?

In the Big Brown and Barbaro years, the Florida Derby - the final Derby prep for both colts - was situated five weeks away from the first Saturday in May, but this year, Gulfstream Park bumped the Florida Derby back a week after the Louisiana Derby was moved to the five-week-out spot. So Ice Box, the 2010 Florida Derby winner, will be attempting to become the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby after a six-week layoff.

"You try not to get too high or too low, to go up or down too much," trainer Nick Zito said of the long gap between starts. "I don't want him under or over. I'm just trying to do what's right."

Ice Box turned in a fast final Derby workout, going a half-mile in 46.40 seconds April 23. But his work, too, came farther away from the Derby than all but one of the other 20 horses entered Wednesday, that being the Zito-trained Jackson Bend. Zito, though, scoffed at the idea of giving Ice Box any kind of Derby-week blowout.

"No, nothing like that," he said. "Did you see his work the other day? And he has three mile-and-an-eighth races. That's what I mean about over the top. I think if I blow him out, he'll be over the top."

Ice Box has galloped at a much more controlled pace this week than most of his Derby counterparts, and his exercise rider appeared to be working hard to keep him in hand. Zito referenced Ice Box's hot-blooded sire when asked if Ice Box was difficult in the morning.

"He's a Pulpit," said Zito. "He's probably a strong horse, but most of the Derby horses are that way."

One could also draw parallels between Ice Box and Zito's first Derby winner, Strike the Gold. Ice Box finished seventh, fifth, and fourth in New York in his first three starts last year at 2. Strike the Gold was ninth by 21 lengths in his career debut and fifth in his second start. Zito experimented with blinkers on both horses, but neither wore them at age 3. Ice Box is a dead closer, and so was Strike the Gold. Both are chestnuts, and both ran in the Florida Derby. The difference is that Strike the Gold still had time to make another pre-Derby start, winning the Blue Grass three weeks before the Derby. Ice Box is coming into the race cold.

Dean's Kitten in, Pleasant Prince out

As much as he wanted to run Pleasant Prince in the Kentucky Derby, owner Ken Ramsey would not do it at the expense of his other horse, Dean's Kitten.

When Endorsement was withdrawn Wednesday morning because of a condylar fracture in his right foreleg, that enabled Make Music for Me to get into the race. It also moved Pleasant Prince to 21st on the graded earnings list, needing one more defection to get in. Ramsey could have provided the defection by not entering Dean's Kitten.

Ramsey said he "never considered it," even though he knows Pleasant Prince would probably be a shorter price than Dean's Kitten. Pleasant Prince, who got beat a nose in the Florida Derby, is a true dirt horse, whereas Dean's Kitten is more proven over a synthetic surface and was beaten 33 lengths in his lone dirt try. Dean's Kitten won the Lane's End Stakes over Turfway Park's synthetic surface.

"I felt Dean's Kitten earned his way in and Pleasant Prince didn't," said Ramsey, who entered Pleasant Prince in the Derby hoping for another defection that didn't come. "Dean's Kitten has been prepared the correct way. Plan A got him in."

Pleasant Prince has run twice since finishing second in the Florida Derby on March 27. He finished seventh in the Blue Grass on April 10 and third in the Derby Trial last Saturday.

Another reason Ramsey went with Dean's Kitten in the Derby is that he is the breeder of the colt and owns the sire, Kitten's Joy.

Ramsey said Pleasant Prince would be pointed to the Preakness but would not run if Dean's Kitten won the Derby.

Talking pedigree with McPeek

Trainer Ken McPeek has prided himself on his knowledge of Thoroughbred pedigrees, having grown up studying books and magazines on breeding. So when skeptics allege his Derby starter, Noble's Promise, has speed-slanted bloodlines, McPeek jumps to the colt's defense.

Noble's Promise is by Cuvee out of a Clever Trick mare, which would indicate he lacks the necessary stamina to win the 136th Derby.

"Years ago, those same people might've been knocking Mr. Prospector for being a sprinter, and he's been in the pedigree of a lot of Derby winners," McPeek said. "Same with Danzig. You look at a horse like Big Brown, and his pedigree page had no black type in it at all. Barbaro was out of a mare by Carson City, and that's strictly speed."

Big Brown won the Derby in 2008, and Barbaro won in 2006.

Noble's Promise "has a very good foundation on the dam's side, which to me is the more important half of a horse's pedigree," McPeek said. "There's a lot of Darby Dan influence in there, with mares who went long on the grass. One of the things I'm not worried about my horse is whether his pedigree is good enough to win."

Noble's Promise will be the fourth Derby starter for McPeek, whose best finisher was Tejano Run, the 1995 runner-up to Thunder Gulch.

Blame will target Schaefer Handicap

Absent from Friday's Alysheba Stakes was 2009 Clark Handicap winner Blame, but Blame is doing just fine, trainer Al Stall said Wednesday morning, and is scheduled to make his 2010 debut in the May 15 William Donald Schaefer Handicap at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard.

Blame, who is stabled at Keeneland, spent the winter at Fair Grounds, but Stall took a patient approach, opting to bring Blame along slowly rather than point him for the New Orleans Handicap in late March. In New Orleans, Stall mentioned the Ben Ali at Keeneland and the Alysheba at Churchill as possible spots, but decided to wait a little longer.

"He's ready," Stall said, "I just wanted to give him a couple extra weeks. When I'm bringing a horse back from a long layoff, I'm not one to say, 'Okay, he's ready, let's enter him.' I like to get them really ready, then step back and take a deep breath."

Oaks future: Blind Luck 4-1 favorite

In the only future wager offered by Churchill on the Oaks this year, Blind Luck closed as the 4-1 favorite, with Amen Hallelujah the 6-1 second choice.

All the other separately listed fillies closed at big prices: Crisp (20-1), Tidal Pool (23-1), Beautician (25-1), Jody Slew (29-1), Evening Jewel (37-1), Quiet Temper (52-1), and Joanie's Catch (55-1). The five remaining Oaks runners are in the mutuel field (7-1).

The Oaks pool coincided with Derby Pool 2 from March 5-7.

* Churchill will offer pick threes in 50-cent increments on Oaks and Derby days, but 10-cent superfectas will not be offered either day, with the minimum reverting to $1. The super high five on the Oaks and Derby are both $1 minimums as well.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Marty McGee