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Optimizer Gearing Up for Arkansas Derby

Leave it to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas - famous for his association with basketball coaching legends - to use a basketball analogy to describe what he wanted from Rebel Stakes (G2) runner-up Optimizer and Bayakoa Stakes winner Absinthe Minded in their workouts at Oaklawn the last two mornings.

"When we talk about maintenance drills, it's like when you drill and drill fundamentals with college basketball players but never let them scrimmage," said Lukas Wednesday morning. "You want to keep them focused, so you give them a chance to feel the flow of a game. Even with a slow work like (yesterday), you'll usually see them come back much more focused in their regular day-to-day galloping and training."

Owned by Brad Kelley's Bluegrass Hall, Optimizer worked a half-mile Monday morning in 49 seconds in his first major "scrimmage" since bouncing back to the Arkansas Derby (G1) and Triple Crown trail with his fast-closing run that fell just short of Secret Circle in the Rebel Stakes March 17. The result helped move the 3-year-old son of English Channel right into the middle of the Graded stakes earnings leaders with $181,375 bankrolled so far. Those earnings help determine who gets to race in the famed "Run for the Roses" if more than 20 horses enter. After last weekend, Optimizer is 16th on the list maintained by Churchill Downs, but Lukas isn't feeling comfortably in the field yet.

"I think the cutoff is probably going to go north of $200,000," he said. "Fortunately, we have a big payday still out there. In fact, I think he has a really big payday waiting for him."

That payday likely would come from taking the winner's share of the $1 million purse in the Arkansas Derby April 14.

Briland Farm's Absinthe Minded went back to work as well after her surprisingly disappointing fourth-place finish in the Azeri Stakes (G3) earlier on March 17. The two-time stakes winner this season and proven horse-for-the-course in Hot Springs went a half-mile in 47 4/5 for Lukas as she tries her own bounce back in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) on April 13.

"She's the same as Optimizer," said Lukas. "She's focused and happy."

Lukas will send Bluegrass Hall's maiden 3-year-old filly Colonial Empress to Saturday's $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks in New Orleans after her recent third-place run behind On Fire Baby and Amie's Dini in the Honeybee Stakes (G3) April 10. Audaciously she made her career debut in the Martha Washington Stakes in February and finished fourth. The New Orleans trip means all three of her races so far in her career will be in stakes company. She had a three-furlong blowout work Tuesday in 36 3/5.

Top 3-Year-Olds Train Together For Team Asmussen

Winchell Thoroughbreds' Delta Jackpot (G3) winner Sabercat returned to the Oaklawn track this week along with highly regarded Unbridled's Note to train in company with the goal of improving their recent efforts for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Both were clocked in 1:01 4/5 for five furlongs Monday morning in their first drills since failing to have an impact in the Rebel Stakes (G2) March 17. Sabercat finished 8th in his first start of the year in the 1 1/16th-mile Arkansas Derby (G1) prep while Unbridled's Note faded to 12th and last after setting the pace.

"They both breezed really good," said assistant trainer Mitch Denison. "Sabercat has settled in and is happy. He's made steady improvement, and it shows in his training. Unbridled's Note has been training great and working with Sabercat seems to make him better."

Sabercat, by virtue of his win in the lucrative Delta Downs race in November, can consider himself safely in the Kentucky Derby (G1) field, but will work on improving his performance in the Arkansas Derbyin his next start. Unbridled's Note remains eligible for allowance races, though he scratched out of one the day before the Rebel to go for the bigger stakes pot. Prior to that he had finished 9th after breaking poorly in the first division of the Southwest Stakes (G3) in February in what was his first start as a 3-year-old following a dazzling career debut last fall in Kentucky.



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