Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, said "it might be suicide" to take on pre-Kentucky Derby favorite Street Sense and highly respected Great Hunter in three weeks in the Grade I, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, but Hard Spun's jockey, Mario Pino, sees it as simply the next step in the thoroughbred's development.
"If those horses had been in the Lane's End with us [Saturday], it would have been hard for them to run my horse down. It's one step at a time, and his next race will simply be another obstacle to overcome."
In the Lane's End, Hard Spun handled the synthetic Polytrack surface for the first time and showed he could relax.
"It was the first time," Pino said. "In every other race, he's been on the lead. This time, he felt like he was manageable and a more calm runner. You have to learn how to take adversity, and he's doing that.
"In the Blue Grass, against better horses, he'll have to step up again."
With Hard Spun's 3 1/4 -length victory in Saturday's Grade II, $500,000 stakes at Turfway, the Danzig colt earned $300,000, assuring himself a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 5 if all continues to go well.
In the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, also at Turfway on Saturday, Dominican, an El Corredor gelding, might also have put himself in the Derby picture, but like trainer Dickie Small, whose Etude won the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park, Dominican's trainer Darrin Miller didn't want to force his horse into too big a jump.
Both men acknowledged their horses ran excellent races, but both said they "don't want to get ahead of themselves," and will continue to consider their options. Etude is scheduled for the Federico Tesio Stakes on April 21 at Pimlico, and Dominican's schedule calls for the Grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland the same day.
For Pino, 45, the winner of more than 5,800 races, Hard Spun would be his first Derby horse in a 27-year career.
"I've never seen him so happy," Pino's wife, Christina, said. "It's the ultimate dream for every jockey, and for Mario to do it now, at this time in his career, it's like a fairy tale."
This Saturday, a major group of Derby contenders will go to post in the Grade I Florida Derby, including Adore the Gold, who clocked an attention-getting 22.61 in the last quarter-mile of a five-furlong work Saturday, Stormello, Scat Daddy, Notional, Imawildandcrazyguy and the Michael Matz-trained Chelokee.
Matz won last year's Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with the late Barbaro.
Triple Crown rankings
Each week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, racing writers from Tribune newspapers will rank the contending horses. (St.-starts; W-win; P-place; S-show)
Horse Trainer Jockey St. W P S Last race Next race
1. Street Sense Carl Nafzger Calvin Borel 6 3 1 2 Tampa Bay Derby (1st) Blue Grass (4/14)
2. Nobiz Like Showbiz Barclay Tagg Cornelio Velasquez 5 3 1 1 Fountain of Youth (3rd) Fla. Derby or Wood
5. Scat Daddy Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 7 4 1 1 Fountain of Youth (1st) Florida Derby (3/31)
6. Any Given Saturday Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 5 3 2 0 Tampa Bay Derby (2nd) Blue Grass (4/14)
7. Hard Spun Larry Jones Mario Pino 6 5 0 0 Lane's End (1st) Blue Grass (4/14)
8. Stormello William Currin Kent Desormeaux 8 3 1 2 Fountain of Youth (2nd) Florida Derby (3/31)
9. Adore the Gold Michael Gorham Cornelio Velasquez 6 4 0 0 Fountain of Youth (4th) Florida Derby (3/31)
10. Curlin Steve Asmussen Robby Albarado 2 2 0 0 Rebel (1st) Arkansas Derby (4/14)
Triple Crown panel: John Cherwa, Orlando Sentinel; Dave Joseph, South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Sandra McKee, The Sun; Bob Mieszerski, Los Angeles Times; Paul Moran, Newsday.