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John Clay: Don't forget Louisiana Derby when handicapping Kentucky Derby

LOUISVILLE — When it comes to handicapping this year's Kentucky Derby, they talk about the way the horses ran in the Wood Memorial, and the Arkansas Derby, and the Santa Anita Derby, and the Florida Derby.

You don't hear much about the Louisiana Derby.

"Not to say I read everything out there, but I read everything out there," said Kelly Breen, the trainer of Pants On Fire. "And people are talking bad about the Louisiana Derby. They're talking about who they beat and who was in it."

As in, the Grade II race at the Fair Grounds on March 26 wasn't much of a race.

But then Nehro, the horse who lost the Louisiana Derby by a neck, jumped up to finish second, again by a neck, in the Arkansas Derby.

And then, last Saturday, Machen, a horse that finished fifth in the Louisiana Derby, produced an impressive win in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.

"I think that validates the Louisiana Derby," Breen said. "I think it gives all of us a little more of a chance of saying that the Louisiana Derby was a real race."

Did we mention that Pants On Fire won the Louisiana Derby?

The son of Jump Start rebounded from a disappointing sixth in the Risen Star to claim his first stakes win, not to mention his first graded-stakes win.

Having secured the needed graded earnings for a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, Breen elected to bypass an additional prep and come to Churchill with a good deal of rest.

"He looks dynamite," Breen said.

Pants On Fire wasn't even the top Derby contender for Breen or owners George and Lori Hall. That was a horse named Sweet Ducky, who placed second in the Holy Bull before the Halls sold him to Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya.

"When we sold Sweet Ducky," Breen said, "we were thinking, 'Do we take a shot at Grade I horses with Pants On Fire?' "

On the one hand, Pants On Fire had run a respectable second in the Lecomte at Fair Grounds — "I really liked his race in the Lecomte," Breen said. On the other, there was his disappointing showing in the Risen Star.

But Breen thought there was a reason for the latter. Previously more of a speed horse that was on or close to the lead, Pants On Fire was taken back.

"It was an experiment that possibly went bad, taking the horse back in the Risen Star," Breen said. "It wasn't his best start. Maybe he had something going on, a little bit of getting sick."

Afterward, Breen put his horse on some antibiotics, and Pants On Fire blossomed.

"He turned the corner," said the trainer, who saddled two horses in the 2009 Derby: ninth-place finisher West Side Bernie and 16th-placed Atomic Rain.

Instead of shipping for a Grade I elsewhere, Breen decided to stay in Louisiana for the Grade II feature at the Fair Grounds. And, when asked what he likes best about his horse, Breen replies: "That he won last time out, a million-dollar race."

With jockey Rosie Napravnik up for the first time, Pants On Fire captured the Louisiana Derby to stamp himself as a Kentucky Derby contender, one that might have been reinforced when Nehro ran well in Arkansas.

"(The Racing Form) commented that we were lucky to beat an improving horse," Breen said. "If you watch the race, at no point after the wire, or before the wire, going around two more times, did Nehro get in front of our horse. Watch the replay. Never. Ever."

Breen said his horse has the rare combination of being a speed horse who can also relax.

"He might be a little more relaxed than I am," laughed the trainer.

That might especially be true for a trainer whose horse hasn't received a lot of attention since the end of March.

"I'm just happy to be here," Breen said. "It's great to be a part of it all."

It would be even better to prove those Louisiana Derby doubters wrong.

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