In major Kentucky Derby preps last weekend in Florida,
Louisiana and California, horses such as Lil's Lad, Cape Town, Comic Strip, Artax and Real Quiet flashed strong Derby credentials. But in a $100,000 race on the undercard of the $750,000 Florida Derby, a horse many had dismissed as a Derby contender earned gushing accolades.
Favorite Trick, 1997 Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, made his 1998 debut under new trainer Bill Mott in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Favorite Trick won, remaining unbeaten after nine starts. Although the Swale was seven-eighths of a mile, and Favorite Trick is a sprinter's son, his performance after a four-month layoff impressed rival trainers.
And none is more "rival" than Neil Howard, who trains Lil's Lad and Comic Strip, who would run in the Derby as an entry -- and likely favorite -- because of common ownership. Howard has this advice for reporters who doubt Favorite Trick's ability to run 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby:
"Save your ink. That horse can do anything."
Even win the Kentucky Derby?
"Anything," Howard said.
Added D. Wayne Lukas: "We're dealing with a very special horse here. I think you guys [turf writers] did the right thing making him Horse of the Year."
Lukas, who trains the Florida Derby winner Cape Town, also praised Mott, who began training Favorite Trick in January. The Phone Trick colt had not trained seriously for nearly two months and had undergone treatment for sore ankles.
"At this point," Lukas said, "if I was to vote for trainer of the year, I'd vote for Bill Mott."
After the Swale, Mott said Favorite Trick would likely run next in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
But now he's saying the horse might race in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Both 1 1/8 -mile races are April 11.
Mott said Favorite Trick doesn't need to duck opponents, but he expressed concern about Lil's Lad on an uncontested lead in the Blue Grass.
"I think then he'd be tough to catch," Mott said. "We might have the horse that could run him down. But we don't want his next race to be his toughest race. We want the race that best sets him up for the Kentucky Derby."
For the first time, the understated Mott talked with confidence about Favorite Trick.
"Right now I don't think we're playing catch up at all," Mott said. "My horse is the most accomplished horse out there. He trains and runs like a horse who wants a little more distance. I don't think we'll ever know about a mile and a quarter until he actually gets the chance to try it himself."
An abundance of speed horses in the Derby would help, Mott said.
"He's very content galloping along at whatever pace you want him to -- until you ask him to run," Mott said. "I think that's his biggest asset."
The Derby could be a showdown between speedsters Lil's Lad, who finished first in the Florida Derby but was placed second for bumping Cape Town, and Artax, who held off Real Quiet in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
However, the trainers of both horses -- Howard of Lil's Lad and Randy Bradshaw of Artax -- said they plan on trying to teach their horses to relax behind early leaders.
Shug McGaughey, trainer of Stuart S. Janney III's Coronado's Quest, said he is 99 percent sure the colt will not start in the Kentucky Derby, even if he wins the Wood Memorial Stakes on April 11 at Aqueduct. Coronado's Quest threw another fit before the Florida Derby and then faded to fifth, possibly displacing his soft palate.
Also, John Mabee, owner of several Derby prospects, said Souvenir Copy, Post a Note and Prosperous Bid will be pointed to other races. His remaining candidate, Event of the Year, races next in the Jim Beam Stakes.
In today's races for Derby candidates, Hot Wells, owned by Mike Warren Lasky, faces a tough cast in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, including Victory Gallop, formerly trained by Pimlico's Mary Eppler.
At Aqueduct, a group of unlikely Derby starters compete in the one-mile Gotham Stakes, including P Day, who is bred, owned and trained by the quiet Marylander Charlie Hadry.
Pub Date: 3/21/98