It's a small price to pay for all he has accomplished, but Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham is already under scrutiny at Santa Anita Park with Excavate, his top prospect for the Triple Crown.
The colt finished a sharp-closing second in his 3-year-old debut Thursday at Santa Anita. He had started only once -- to much fanfare -- at 2, when he romped in a maiden race.
Excavate was beaten by three-quarters of a length as the 2-5 favorite in the 6 1/2 -furlong allowance race, which was run in a fast minute, 15 1/5 seconds. A report in the Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News said the margin was "shrinking," then quoted Whittingham as saying: "We got trapped there on the inside, and that screwed everything up. He still ran a hell of a race."
If it weren't for the colt's breeding and connections, Excavate might be just another name among the 369 early Triple Crown nominations. But he's trained by Whittingham, who has won two of the past five Kentucky Derbies (Ferdinand in 1986 and Sunday Silence in 1989) and is often called the best trainer in history. And Excavate is by the top-flight sire, Mr. Prospector, out of the mare Anne Campbell, which makes him a half-brother to Desert Wine, a top horse in the mid-1980s. In addition, Whittingham uncharacteristically touted the colt last year as a potential champion.
The build-up has led future books in Las Vegas to make the colt second choice for the Derby, behind only Fly So Free, last year's 2-year-old champion.
There are other names being bantered about in the West as Triple Crown potential: Avenue Of Flags (who defeated Excavate), Dinard, Olympio, Apollo and Compelling Sound, a Whittingham-trained Seattle Slew colt who was in a maiden race at Santa Anita yesterday.
California-based runners have won four of the last five Derbies. Unbridled broke a four-year streak last year.
Tickets are still available for the 14th Federico Tesio awards dinner Friday night at Martin's West.
Pierre "Peb" Bellocq, artist for the Daily Racing Form, will be honored with the Golden Horseshoe Award, the top annual award given by the sponsoring Sons of Italy.
Tickets are $50. For information, call Sam Culotta at 747-0998.
Jack Mann, sportswriter and columnist for The Evening Sun, is the latest nationally known writer to join the ranks of Racing Times, the new publication that is preparing to challenge the Daily Racing Form in the racing newspaper market.
Mann will be the Maryland-based correspondent. Dale Austin, former Sun racing writer, left two months ago to become the paper's South Florida correspondent. Irwin Cohen, senior editor, said the paper will begin publishing before May.