Lane's End offers a Derby ticket

The words John Sadler spoke on Tuesday about his stakes winner Ranger Heartley could have been used to describe any horse in the field for the Grade II, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes.

"We're looking for another chance to keep him on the Derby trail," Sadler said.

With the major Kentucky Derby hopefuls all opting to put their prep work in elsewhere, Saturday's Lane's End Stakes represents a golden ticket of sorts for the 10 horses scheduled to go to post in the 11?8-mile race.

A victory would give the winner the graded stakes earnings needed to ensure a spot in the Derby field.

With only one graded stakes winner in Saturday's race — El Camino Real Derby winner Connemara — there is hope among all the connections that their off-the-radar contenders can make a convincing argument to move on to Louisville.

"If one of those horses really jumped up and had a good performance on Saturday, it might encourage us to point them toward the Derby," said Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm, which campaigned last year's race winner Hold Me Back and has two Lane's End contenders this year in Doubles Partner and Chief Counsel.

"I don't know if either of our horses have shown that they've earned the right to be a Derby horse yet but ... you want to give them every opportunity you can to be a success. Sometimes, horses move forward very quickly."

On paper, Connemara — one of two horses in the field trained by Todd Pletcher — has a decided class advantage. The son of Giant's Causeway has three wins in four lifetime starts, all over synthetic surfaces, including a 11/4-length victory in the 11?8-mile El Camino Real on Feb. 20.

Ranger Heartley, a front-runner, defeated Connemara in the 11?16-mile California Derby on Jan. 16, but tired in the El Camino despite getting a half-mile in :49.56.

"It wasn't that smooth last time (in the El Camino Real), but he's been training forward since that race," Sadler said. "I'm not concerned about the distance, but he likes to be on the lead, so it depends on what kind of trip he gets."

Though Connemara is the 9-5 morning-line favorite, Pletcher may have a dark horse in Doubles Partner, who is testing stakes company for the first time.

The son of Rock Hard Ten has won his last two starts, both on the turf going 11?8 miles, and has demonstrated the ability to either rally from far off the pace or sit just off the leaders, as he did when he defeated the highly touted Lentenor in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 17.

"This will be a step up for him but he did beat Lentenor in his last race, and Lentenor came back to be fourth in the Florida Derby," Pletcher said. "He's a WinStar horse so he's spent a lot of time training at Keeneland and he seems to like the synthetic."

One horse who relishes Turfway's surface is Vow to Wager, winner via disqualification of the roughly-run John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on Feb. 27.

Vow to Wager has earned both of his wins from five career starts at Turfway, including a 51/2-length score in his maiden victory going a mile on Jan. 31.

"I really don't believe it's the Polytrack that has moved him up, I think it's just him getting better and better," trainer Dale Romans said. "Mentally he never figured the game out and ... we kept thinking, with experience, eventually a switch would turn on."

Though he has yet to break through against top company, Dean's Kitten has knocked heads against graded stakes winners Eskendereya and Interactif in his 10-race career and was beaten just 23/4 lengths while running sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

The late-running son of Kitten's Joy finished second in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the turf at Gulfstream on March 6 and is trying the synthetics for the first time since running third in his maiden outing at Keeneland last April.

"That (Gulfstream race) was a very good race on a speed-biased course, so Turfway will be just what the doctor ordered," trainer Mike Maker said. "The farther he goes, the better."