Focused, as usual Kentucky Derby: Any rivalries aside, astute trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito have done their typical precise preparation for the Run for the Roses.

May 01, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- D. Wayne Lukas says play it up, sensationalize it, blow it out of proportion.

Bitter Derby rivalry: Lukas vs. Nick Zito. Cape Town vs. Halory Hunter.

Trouble is, it's not true.

"Actually, we don't feel any rivalry," Lukas said of his relationship with fellow trainer Zito. "We're just trying to do our job and win some races. But if people think we've got this big rivalry going, that'd be great for the sport."

If a personal rivalry doesn't exist, then a rivalry of statistics does. Of this decade's eight Kentucky Derbys, horses trained by Lukas and Zito have won four -- including three in a row from 1994 to 1996.

Tomorrow, they will saddle horses that, oddly, aren't attracting as much attention as undefeated Indian Charlie and 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick. But to a much greater degree than those media darlings, Lukas' Cape Town and Zito's Halory Hunter fit the profile of a Kentucky Derby winner.

Although undefeated, Indian Charlie has raced only four times. You must go back 80 years to find a Derby winner with so little experience.

And Favorite Trick, despite being the first 2-year-old Horse of the Year since Secretariat, has several knocks: His pedigree is a sprinter's; his dosage is too high; he hasn't raced enough as a 3-year-old; his Eclipse award at 2 and victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile are jinxes.

But Cape Town and Halory Hunter, as brought along by their Derby-astute trainers, have the proper experience at 2 and conditioning at 3. Lukas and Zito months ago circled the first Saturday in May, and they have never lost focus.

After Cape Town's rookie season in which he won three of six races (two wins came here at Churchill Downs), Lukas started the colt as a 3-year-old in the Holy Bull Stakes in January at Gulfstream Park. Cape Town won, defeating solid colts.

Instead of rejoicing, Lukas reconsidered.

"That was a terrific effort," Lukas said, "but I thought, 'We're coming too fast too quick. I don't want this horse to get good in March and then tail off.' If I've learned anything it's that you've got to be right on the given day, and that's this Saturday."

So Lukas shortened Cape Town's gallops, softened up on his training. And Cape Town threw a clunker in February in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, tiring badly down the stretch.

Lukas responded by tightening the screws, and Cape Town won the Florida Derby in March -- by disqualification, although his effort was a winning one. And then, in his final Derby prep, Cape Town finished a lackluster third in April in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

"What I gave him to do that day, he did fine," Lukas said. "I didn't want his career best, or spring best, in the Blue Grass. I feel comfortable with what I got out of that race leading to the ultimate goal, which is this race."

Lukas enhanced Cape Town's chances in the Derby even more by hiring Jerry Bailey, available because of the injury to Lil's Lad. Bailey has ridden Cape Town once -- to victory in the Holy Bull.

So the connections of 1996 Derby winner Grindstone are reunited: Lukas, Bailey and owner William T. Young of Overbrook Farm.

"I told Bill Young the other day, 'I think you're as well off as %J certainly you were with Grindstone -- maybe better,' " Lukas said. "There's no better-bred horse in the race. And he's done everything right. I think he's probably as nice a horse as I've led over there in a long time."

Lukas has led into the Derby at least one every year since 1981 -- 32 in all. He has won three. That means he's lost 29.

Zito has a far better win percentage. Of his eight starters (all this decade), two have won, Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994.

What kind of chance did he give Strike the Gold? "Oh, a tremendous chance," he said.

Go for Gin? "A good chance, and when it rained an ever better chance."

Halory Hunter? "Tremendous chance. He's a wonderful horse, very talented, very courageous, very honest. I give him a tremendous chance."

In nine starts Halory Hunter has been worse than third only once, his first race last August. His brief career closely resembles Cape Town's. They've both raced four times this year. Last year, Halory Hunter ran five times, Cape Town four.

They've run head-to-head in their last three races. Halory Hunter finished ahead of Cape Town twice, including in the Blue Grass, which Halory Hunter won.

All winter in Florida, as Zito prepared his colt, he echoed Lukas, saying the preps weren't the goal, the Derby was. Finally, in the Blue Grass, Halory Hunter flashed the ability Zito had said was there all along.

As a result, he is 7-2 in the morning line compared to Cape Town's 6-1.

But did Halory Hunter, unlike Cape Town, peak one race too soon?

"That's a good question," Zito said. "There's this thing called the 'bounce' theory, which says Halory Hunter might regress a little in the Derby.

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