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Trainers keeping eyes on the skies

LOUISVILLE — The main topic 24 hours before the 135th Kentucky Derby did not center around one of the 20 horses set to go to post in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Instead, the dominant subject on most trainers' minds Friday was the almost certain appearance of another threat to the field.

"The only thing I could ask for is better weather and a fast racetrack," said Jeff Mullins, trainer of Derby morning-line favorite I Want Revenge.

In a week that has seen the Derby lineup altered by the hour in some cases, Mother Nature has emerged as the latest entity to potentially affect the race's outcome.

The rains that have hung around for the past several days are again expected to show up on Saturday, making the likelihood of an off track a distinct possibility.

For trainer Larry Jones, who watched his charge, Friesan Fire, roll to a 71/4-length triumph in the Louisiana Derby over a sloppy track, the overcast skies won't dampen the game plan.

However, inside some other shedrows, that's not the case.

"If it is 'fast' or 'sloppy' tomorrow for the race, I think we'll be fine," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Grade II winner Advice, probable pacesetter Join in the Dance, and Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk on Saturday. "But I don't think we want to see a 'good' or 'muddy' track. That won't help my horses. We'll hope we won't have to deal with that."

As was the case last year, the 2009 Derby field boasts a handful of horses for whom Saturday will mark their first career starts over a dirt track — the most notable being multiple Grade I winner Pioneerof the Nile and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Chocolate Candy.

The prospect of mud could further complicate that transition, not only in how they get hold of the surface but also because of the kickback they could face.

That idea was most certainly part of the reason why Bob Baffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile, chose post position No. 16 for the Santa Anita Derby winner.

"He didn't want to settle last time (in the Santa Anita Derby); that's why I didn't take a chance of putting him on the inside, especially with the wet track," Baffert said. "If it's wet and he's down on the inside and the mud starts hitting him, sometimes it can get to them."

In addition to Friesan Fire, Godolphin Racing's Desert Party is among the few horses with a record of success on an off track.

Desert Party won the Grade II Sanford Stakes by 31/4 lengths over what was listed as a muddy track at Saratoga last July and has trained sharply since arriving in Louisville alongside stablemate Regal Ransom.

"I think Desert Party will handle it. He's won on it before," trainer Saeed bin Suroor said. "All week, Regal Ransom handled the ground good, but in the race it would be different. It's hard to say."

In addition to track conditions, the early pace has been a much-discussed topic.

When Florida Derby winner Quality Road was declared out of the race early in the week because of a quarter crack, it appeared that the speed in the Derby had been lost as well.

Instead, the race's closers received a boost when confirmed front-runner Join in the Dance got into the field.

"When Todd's horse got in by defection, that's when we decided to run Advice," said Elliott Walden, vice president of owner WinStar Farm. "We probably wouldn't have run Advice if he was 20 (on the earnings list) and Join in the Dance was 21st. We do need speed for all three of our horses."

Said Pletcher: "We have very realistic expectations about Join in the Dance. He is a very nice horse but he would need everything to go just right, get loose on the lead with soft fractions and maybe have the track come up speed-favoring."

Regal Ransom also is one that could be among the early leaders, as he made all the pace en route to his half-length win in the UAE Derby over Desert Party.

Papa Clem also has demonstrated the ability to go to the front, but he won the Grade II Arkansas Derby by coming off the pace.

Wet, dry. Pace or no pace. The one thing most everyone can agree on is that if they have a horse that is truly ready to take this step, no outside influence of any kind will deter it.

"There is no excuse for them," bin Suroor said of his two contenders. "If they are good enough, they are going to win."