HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- One day after the Kentucky Derby turned as fuzzy as the picture on an old television, Bill Mott provided some clarity by saying that Favorite Trick would be pointed toward the big race May 2 at Churchill Downs.
The morning after Favorite Trick finished third in the Arkansas Derby -- losing for the first time in 10 races -- Mott, his trainer, said the colt seemed no worse for wear. Before the sun had even risen, Favorite Trick and five other Mott horses were loaded onto a van at Oaklawn Park for the trip to Louisville.
"We're going to Louisville with the thought we're going to train for the race," Mott said. "If we're not happy with his training over the next three weeks, we can change our mind."
Before Saturday's trio of top Kentucky Derby preps -- Blue Grass Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Wood Memorial -- the Derby menu looked as appetizing as a plate of homemade pasta in Little Italy.
Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year, could have become the third unbeaten horse in this year's Derby. That would have been a first. The Derby has never featured three unbeaten horses.
Lil's Lad could have won the Blue Grass and then competed for the role of Derby favorite with Favorite Trick and the undefeated pair of Indian Charlie, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, and Event of the Year, winner of the Jim Beam Stakes.
Instead, Favorite Trick and Lil's Lad lost at 2-5 odds. Then, Maryland's Stuart S. Janney III, owner of Wood Memorial winner Coronado's Quest -- perhaps the best 3-year-old of all -- said his horse wasn't even going to Churchill Downs.
"After what happened [Saturday]," Janney said, "it's a wide-open Derby."
It's so wide open and unsettled that even Neil Howard, trainer of Lil's Lad and two other Derby prospects, said he doesn't know who in his bunch -- if any -- is going. Howard also trains Comic Strip, a disappointing third in the Flamingo Stakes, and Parade Ground, an encouraging third in Saturday's Wood Memorial.
Of the 11 Wood horses, Parade Ground has the best chance of showing up in the Derby. After the race, his jockey Joe Bravo said: "The first thing I'm going to do tomorrow is get on the phone with Neil Howard and beg him to run this horse in the Derby. He is just begging for more ground. He'll be perfect in the Derby."
Saturday's three preps were 1 1/8 miles. The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles.
Depending on what Howard decides about Lil's Lad, the top three finishers in the Blue Glass could be Derby-bound. Nick Zito sounds ecstatic about the prospects of Halory Hunter now that his colt, owned by Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, has won the Blue Grass.
And D. Wayne Lukas said Cape Town, despite a lackluster third in the Blue Grass, will go to the Derby.
"Nothing surprises me in the Blue Grass," said Lukas, referring to its often-illogical outcomes. "I think you have to treat it as a very nice race and a great attraction."
At Oaklawn Park, the handlers of Victory Gallop and Hanuman Highway, one-two finishers in the Arkansas Derby, readied the horses for excursions to Louisville for the Derby. But Tom Amoss, trainer of fourth-place finisher Hot Wells, owned by Baltimore's Mike Warren Lasky, and Richard Mandella, trainer of fifth-place finisher Quake, said their horses were not Derby-bound.
That left Mott, the "slow thinker," as he quipped after the Arkansas Derby, to ponder his horse's next move. A night's sleep after watching reruns of the race confirmed his earlier conclusion that Favorite Trick, with Pat Day aboard, ran far too fast early.
"It was just very uncharacteristic of Pat and the horse," Mott said. "I think Pat probably erred a little bit when he nudged him a couple of times from the gate."
Mott said Day should have restrained Favorite Trick before they reached the first turn. Favorite Trick ended up chasing a 131-1 long shot -- who wound up eighth -- through early fractions that even Day described as suicidal. That left Favorite Trick, though battling, exhausted in the stretch.
"I think Pat misjudged the horse," Mott said. "Minor alterations probably could have allowed him to win the race."
Nevertheless, Mott said, Day will remain with Favorite Trick, who with Day aboard -- won his eight races last year and was voted the first 2-year-old Horse of the Year since Secretariat.
Of Day, a Hall of Fame jockey, Mott said: "He's good enough he'll come back next time and make it right."
The most likely candidates for the Kentucky Derby:
Event of the Year
Pub Date: 4/13/98