Fla. Derby shapes up as puzzling proposition 'King,' 'Song' favored, but neither a shoo-in

March 16, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. - The forecast for today's Florida Derby calls for 80-degree temperatures, sunny skies and muddled conditions for handicappers.

This premier prep for the Kentucky Derby features potential superstars but no obvious standout. It's the kind of race that makes the journey to the Triple Crown races one of the most challenging and captivating in sports.

The top two Kentucky Derby hopefuls Cobra King and Unbridled's Song will meet here for the first time. Although 9-to-5 and 2-to-1, respectively, in the morning line, they raise more questions than they answer.

Is Cobra King, who won three California stakes last year as a 2-year-old, fit after a controversial eight-week layoff? Can Unbridled's Song, who won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile but is winless this year, overcome a severe case of pre-race jitters?

Asked which is the horse to beat, jockey Rick Wilson said: "Everyone in there is the one to beat. There's no outstanding 3-year-old you can point to."

One thing seems certain. The nine-horse race will begin with Wilson's mount, Appealing Skier. His trainer, Ben Perkins Sr., promises that his colt will shoot to the lead.

"He's probably one of the fastest horses in America," Perkins said. "But just because he's a fast horse doesn't mean he can't run a distance."

With four wins in six starts, the Baldski colt beat Unbridled's Song in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes here Feb. 4, but then finished fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes here Feb. 24. Off that race, Appealing Skier is 15-to-1 in the morning line.

Perkins scoffed at the oddsmakers. "We like to bet, and we're going to bet on him," he said. "I will be very disappointed if he doesn't run the race of his life."

That sentiment pervades the stables like the smell of manure. Every trainer, in his heart, believes his horse will win.

"I think, come Saturday, you'll see that we did know what we were doing," Mike Puype, Cobra King's trainer, said this week. "It seems that everyone wants to train the horse but myself."

The upstart Puype, 29, has been criticized for his handling of the Farma Way colt, who will be ridden by Chris McCarron. Cobra King has not raced since winning the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes here Jan. 20.

The horse runs best fresh, said Puype (pronounced PIE-pee). And he runs so hard every race that he needs extra time to recover, the trainer said. After today, Cobra King may not race again before the Kentucky Derby.

"We don't want to kill the horse before we get there," Puype said.

But what about the grueling Triple Crown series of three races in five weeks? "That's an obstacle we'll confront when we get there," he said.

Trainer Jim Ryerson has his own problems with Unbridled's Song, who has raced only five times, winning two and finishing second twice. The gray colt by the champion Unbridled is nervous before races and hard to handle during them. He'll be ridden by Mike Smith.

"We've worked with him," Ryerson said. "He isn't going to be an angel, but I think he'll be improved in his head."

Editor's Note, of the D. Wayne Lukas stable but trained by Lukas assistant Dallas Stewart, also is a head case. With three wins and three seconds in 12 adventurous starts, the Forty Niner colt always seems to run into trouble.

"We feel like he's made strides," Stewart said. "One of these days, he'll put it all together. The talent's certainly there."

Editor's Note, 8-to-1 in the morning line, will be ridden by Gary Stevens.

Two colts are listed as 6-to-1: the Sonny Hines-trained Skip Away with Shane Sellers up, and Nick Zito's Louis Quatorze with Jerry Bailey in the irons. Both trainers expressed confidence, as did Tommy Heard Jr., the 78-year-old trainer of Built For Pleasure, shocking winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Heard's gutsy colt paid $288.20 in that race, and is listed at 12-to-1 in the Florida Derby. "He's still not getting the respect he deserves," Heard said.

Finally, Ensign Ray and Tour's Big Red are long shots, 20-to-1 and 30-to-1, respectively.

The Florida Derby is the race to watch for things to come. The 44 runnings of the Florida race have produced 18 winners of the Kentucky Derby, 16 winners of the Preakness Stakes and 12 winners of the Belmont Stakes.


The weekend features several other stakes races that will begin sorting out Kentucky Derby contenders. Two of those races are here on Gulfstream Park's closing day the $50,000, 1 1/8 -mile Unbridled Stakes and the $75,000 seven-furlong Swale Stakes.

Trainer Shug McGaughey, although not represented in the Florida Derby, has horses in both Draw in the Unbridled and Roar in the Swale. Draw is owned by Maryland's Stuart S. Janney III. His main competition will be the Zito-trained Diligence, owned by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

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