It now seems likely that Maryland racing fans will have a local horse and jockey to root for in the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Ben Perkins Jr., whose large and well-stocked racing stable is headquartered at the Bowie Training Center, said yesterday that he is leaning favorably toward starting Storm Tower in the Derby on May 1.
Rick Wilson, a 39-year-old Pimlico-based jockey who lives in Sykesville, would ride the horse, who won the $500,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by two lengths over Tossofthecoin on Saturday.
Perkins had planned to skip the Derby, but after the surprising results in stakes races over the weekend and the relatively easy score by Storm Tower in the Wood, he has reconsidered.
"Realistically, if you step back and look at his chart, he [Storm Tower] only has one blemish [second-place finish in the Florida Derby] on it," Perkins said.
"Of the top 10 horses, there only seems to be one other speed horse. That's Personal Hope. I watched the video of his winning race in the Santa Anita Derby a couple of times and he seems to be on the muscle. So we can rate off of him if we have to.
"The distance [1 1/4 miles] is going to be tough, but it's going to be hard on all of them. Our colt is sound and he ate up real well [after the Wood]."
Perkins said he will have a definitive Derby answer this morning. "I have already talked to one owner [Charlie Hesse] and he is going to talk it over with the other owner [Tony Tornetta]."
With less than two weeks remaining until race day, the Derby picture has been blown wide open.
Not only did Storm Tower, who was not expected to run in the Derby, win the Wood, but a 108-1 long shot, Rockamundo, won the Arkansas Derby. Two horses, Dalhart and Marked Tree, owned by John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable, were, as one observer put it, "lob lollygagged."
Dalhart, the odds-on favorite, bled in the Arkansas Derby and finished ninth. Chick Lang Jr., administrative director at Oaklawn Park, said it's unlikely the horse will go in the Derby. Marked Tree finished third as the 8-5 Wood favorite and also is expected to bypass the Derby.
Anthony owns the probable Derby favorite, Prairie Bayou.
Lang said that the first four Arkansas Derby finishers -- Rockamundo, Kissin Kris, Foxtrail and Mi Cielo -- are headed for Churchill Downs.
"I'd say this year that an owner with any kind of 3-year-old has got to run him in the Derby," Lang said.
The Lexington Stakes, run at Keeneland Race Course yesterday, probably will add another few horses to the Derby lineup. The winner, Grand Jewel, as well as runner-up Em Bakan, making his first U.S. start, and closer Truth Of It All, who was third, all are likely Derby starters.
"It seems that every Monday after a 3-year-old race, it's written that the winner didn't beat much," Lang said. "Everybody has been taking turns beating everybody else."
In that kind of climate, it seems likely that a full field of 20 horses could start in the Derby.
If more than that are entered, the starters are chosen according to their earnings in graded stakes company.
At the top of the list is Prairie Bayou, winner of the Jim Beam and the Blue Grass. He has $670,000. Bull Inthe Heather, Sea Hero, Personal Hope, Rockamundo and Storm Tower each have $300,000 or more. Wallenda is next at $243,624, followed by Dixieland Heat at $230,000.
Storm Tower, winner of two graded stakes -- the Grade I Wood Memorial and a division of the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes -- is ranked among the top three probable starters along with Prairie Bayou and Personal Hope.
It would be Perkins' second trip to the Derby. He finished 14th in 1989 with 74-1 long shot Faultless Ensign, who was also partly owned by Tornetta.
Perkins' father, Ben Perkins Sr., finished 15th with Bombay Duck at 27-1 odds in 1975.
Wilson, too, has also had one previous Derby experience. He rode Raja's Shark, sent off at 59-1 odds, in 1984 and finished 14th.
But all parties agree, they won't be arriving at Churchill Downs this year with a long shot.
"This time," Perkins said, "it's an entirely different situation."