Saturday, May 04, 2002

Surprise expected today

Even field is filled with contenders

By Neil Schmidt,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — The forecast today calls for a warm, dry Kentucky Derby. Which means the track will be the only element that isn't muddy.

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        Welcome to arguably the most wide-open field in the event's 128-year history, complete with the longest-priced morning-line favorite ever, just four horses with odds better than 15-1, and 19 betting entries.

        “The water's maybe a little muddier than in the past,” said Bill Mott, trainer of Blue Burner. “And that's good for us. It means we all feel like we have a chance.”

        Combing past-performance charts today at Churchill Downs will be like reading tea leaves. Top 3-year-olds converge from the East, South and West, meeting for the first time, and are joined by two horses from Ireland and one from the Middle East.

        “It's probably the most balanced Derby ever,” said Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia of Edgewood, Ky. “With (19) separate betting interests, the payoffs could be astronomical.”

        Ohio-bred Harlan's Holiday, 9-2 in the morning line, is the favorite for the 6:04p.m. race. Buddha, the co-second choice in the morning line at 5-1, scratched Friday because of a foot injury.

        That left Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day without a Derby mount for about seven hours, but he picked up the ride on long shot Blue Burner when Corey Nakatani was ruled out with a light concussion.

        Harlan's Holiday will battle a host of supposed handicaps:

        Only 10 Derby favorites have gone off at odds of 3-1 or higher, and none has won. Only one Ohio-bred has won this race — Wintergreen, in 1909. And this colt has been criticized for his slow winning time in the Blue Grass Stakes (1:51 2/5), with noted handicapper Andy Beyer calling him a “false favorite.”

        Having won two races at River Downs, Harlan's Holiday is trying to become the first Derby winner to have prepped there since Spend a Buck in 1985.

        “I think Harlan's just raring to stretch out (to this 1 1/4-mile distance),” trainer Ken McPeek said. “I can't see him not being in the top three, at least.”

        Came Home is the second choice at 5-1, but a number of analysts believe he hasn't been bred for this distance. His winning time (1:50) in the Santa Anita Derby was the slowest in 47 years.

        “I'm getting tired of that (criticism),” trainer Paco Gonzalez said. “If you were the trainer and you won the Santa Anita Derby, would you be here?”

        McPeek said Friday morning that Came Home is the horse that concerned him the most.

        There are a number of storylines to follow today:

Harlan's Holiday is washed down after a morning workout.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
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        • Jack Wolf, a Louisville native who never owned a horse until buying Harlan's Holiday at auction two years ago, will send off that colt as the Derby favorite today on his 53rd birthday.

        “We're just sort of in disbelief that we got a horse this good,” Wolf said.

        • Three of the horses generating buzz are trained by men who had a previous Derby runner-up.

        McPeek had Tejano Run run second in 1995. Bobby Frankel (6-1 pick Medaglia d'Oro) had Aptitude place in 2000. Shug McGaughey (15-1 shot Saarland) saw odds-on favorite Easy Goer finish second in 1989.

        “It'd be the biggest thing ever in racing,” Frankel said of winning.

        • Two horses trained in secrecy in Ireland, reigning juvenile champ Johannesburg and long shot Castle Gandolfo. Johannesburg is tied for the third betting choice at 6-1 but has had just one prep race in the past six-plus months, a loss on turf last month in Ireland.

        “If there's a gray area here, that's it,” four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of the Irish horses.

        • The Godolphin Stable from the United Arab Emirates is back for a fourth consecutive year, this time with Essence of Dubai. He may have an advantage in having run this distance in his last start — a victory in the UAE Derby.

        • Laffit Pincay Jr., 55, will be the third-oldest Derby jockey — and could become the oldest winner — when he rides Medaglia d'Oro. He is 1-for-20 in previous Derbys.

        • Lukas, who with Proud Citizen extends his record of Derby starters to 39, is back after he failed last spring to have a horse for the first time in 21 years. Proud Citizen came through by winning the final prep race, the Lexington Stakes two weeks ago.

        “We belong,” Lukas said. “I think we're much tougher than any of you believe.”

        • Two-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who four weeks ago didn't have a Derby horse, now has two in War Emblem and long shot Danthebluegrassman. That makes 13 entrants since 1996.

        • Two horses from the Lane's End Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park — Perfect Drift and Request For Parole — will attempt to become just the second graduate of that race to win the Derby. The first was Lil E. Tee in 1992.

        Perfect Drift is getting a lot of the backside buzz. A Courier-Journal media poll rated him third behind Harlan's Holiday and Medaglia d'Oro.


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