Private Emblem wins Arkansas Derby; heads for Kentucky


Sunday, April 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) _ Trainer Steve Asmussen is going to the Kentucky Derby with a colt that has some meat on his bones.

Months ago, Asmussen mapped out a plan to space the races of Private Emblem so that the lanky colt would have some heft on the first Saturday of May. The last piece fell into place Saturday when Private Emblem scored a 4 1/2-length victory over Wild Horses in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

It was only the third race of the year for the son of Our Emblem, owned by James Cassels and Bob Zollars, and his third straight victory.

``He's a tall horse ... and Steve wanted to get some more muscle on him,'' Zollars said. ``Steve wanted to get some more muscle on him and he said if we ran him every three weeks, if we got to the Derby, by the time we get there, we wouldn't have a horse left.''

``We're going in with a loaded gun,'' said winning jockey Donnie Meche. ``It's not like we're going with no bullets.''

Despite breaking from the outside in the 11-horse field, Private Emblem easily reached a contending spot about two lengths off pacesetting Outstander. Mr. Mellon, the 5-2 favorite, was just to the outside of the leader and the three of them continued that way down the backstretch.

Heading into the far turn, Bay Monster started to gain ground on Private Emblem and Meche let out a notch. He said he could see that Larry Melancon was already working on Mr. Mellon and that he knew he had the favorite collared.

``I sat on him as long as I could and I heard horses coming up to me on the outside just about the quarter pole,'' Meche said. ``When he responded, I didn't think anybody would get by me and if he did, he would really have to be running.''

Turning into the stretch, Outstander and Mr. Mellon gave up the fight and Private Emblem inherited the lead. With little urging, he quickly expanded the margin. Wild Horses emerged from a mid-stretch pack to finish second, but did not threaten the winner.

As the third choice in the wagering, Private Emblem returned $10.40, $6.00 and $3.80. Wild Horses, second to Mr. Mellon in the Rushaway in his last start, paid $12.20 and $6.60. It was another 1 1/2 back to Windward Passage and Bay Monster, who finished in a dead heat for third. Windward Passage paid $2.60 and Bay Monster returned $5.60.

Mr. Mellon struggled home sixth and trainer Elliott Walden said the colt was out of the Kentucky Derby. Melancon said he was expecting a late kick from the colt, but that he ``just had no finish ...''

Cassels and Zollars paid $35,000 for Private Emblem at the Keeneland yearling sale. Never worse than third, Private Emblem earned $300,000 for his fourth victory in seven starts, boosting his career bankroll to $459,300.

He began the year with a head victory in a 7 1/2-furlong turf race in New Orleans on Jan. 4 and, two months later, won a division of the one-mile Southwest at Oaklawn.

Wild Horses, making only his fifth start, picked up $100,000 even though jockey Rene Douglas had to hit the horse with his goggles. ``I dropped my whip and would have really felt bad if I had cost me the place,'' he said.

Wild Horses is trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the Arkansas Derby last year with Balto Star and the year before with Graeme Hall.

Cassels and Zollars also have Easyfromthegitgo, who lost by a nose to Repent in the Louisiana Derby. He's supposed to make his next start in the Coolmore Lexington next week and then go to the Preakness, the owners said.

Both admitted they originally thought Easyfromthegitgo might be better than Private Emblem. ``Steve always had a lot of confidence that this horse would get better the later it got,'' Zollars said. ``James and I really had no confidence, other than confidence in Donnie and Steve.''

He said Asmussen had enough confidence in Private Emblem to talk the owners out of running Easyfromthegitgo in the Kentucky Derby and pointing him for the Preakness

``Steve has pointed this horse for the Derby from day one,'' Cassels said.

``The man can recognize some talent,'' Zollars said.

Cassels said he was concerned when Asmussen told him they had drawn the outside for the Arkansas Derby, but that Asmussen calmly told him, ``We'll just have to see who's the best horse.''