LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Three races within one hour today will serve as the final major audition for that cherished national drama we call the Kentucky Derby.
The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park abound with horses whose human connections hope for a bell-ringer performance to verify the worthiness of their 3-year-olds.
On the other hand, the owners and trainers of a few entrants, such as Vicar, Wondertross and Cat Thief, hope for a safe, consistent effort that won't deter them as they bound like eager hounds down the trail that leads to Churchill Downs in Louisville the first Saturday in May.
Of the three 1 1/8-mile races, all on TV, the Blue Grass is by far the toughest and most intriguing. The field is so deep that six or seven of its eight entrants would probably be favored if they ran in the Wood, a grouping of 11 second-stringers.
"It's as tough a field as I've ever been in," said trainer Elliott Walden of the 75th Blue Grass, the country's most hallowed race for Derby hopefuls. "You could take these horses and put them in the Derby, and you'd have a great Derby, never mind the other ones."
Walden trains Menifee, one of those who will be a moderate price in the Blue Grass, maybe 6-1 or 7-1, but would have been favored in the Wood. Walden said he considered the Wood but figured he needed to know whether Menifee belongs in the Derby. And he could learn more about that, he said, by running in the Blue Grass.
He's not alone in searching for answers. Trainer Carl Nafzger said four horses in the Blue Grass, half the field, must still earn their way into the Derby: Menifee, Pineaff, Prado's Landing and Lemon Drop Kid. Four have already proved they belong: Vicar, Wondertross, Cat Thief and Kimberlite Pipe.
The Blue Grass (5: 15 p.m.) and the Wood (5: 42 p.m.) will be televised on ABC. The Arkansas Derby (6: 15 p.m. EST) airs on ESPN.
Here's a look at the horses in the Blue Grass, followed by a glance at the Wood and Arkansas Derby:
Wondertross (5-2) -- His near-miss in the Florida Derby after a troubled trip earned him billing as morning-line favorite. Nick Zito trains him now, but the Laurel Park-based John J. Tammaro III conditioned him last year.
"He did a great job with him as a 2-year-old," Zito said of Tammaro. "His effort in the Florida Derby was gallant, gallant as can be. This is a tough horse. He tries so hard."
Vicar (3-1) -- Trained by Nafzger, who traveled this route in 1990 with Unbridled, Vicar enters the Blue Grass off back-to-back Grade I victories in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby. Although Nafzger insists the Kentucky Derby remains the main goal, his three workouts in nine days for Vicar indicate he covets the Blue Grass, too.
Cat Thief (4-1) -- Despite losing four straight since October, he remains D. Wayne Lukas' top Derby hope. Jockey Mike Smith replaces Pat Day, who is riding Menifee.
Menifee (4-1): After winning his first three, he disappointed Walden by finishing second in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, his first race around two turns. He must prove he can stay a distance.
Lemon Drop Kid (9-2) -- Owned by Marylander Jinny Vance, he has raced only once this year, easily winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He has trained magnificently. Scotty Schulhofer, his usually low-key trainer, loves him.
Kimberlite Pipe (15-1) -- He won the Louisiana Derby at 21-1, defeating top 3-year-olds Answer Lively and Ecton Park.
Pineaff (15-1) -- He won the Tampa Bay Derby with a powerful late surge, knocking Menifee from the unbeaten ranks.
Prado's Landing (30-1) -- Trained as a 2-year-old by Jerry Robb at Laurel Park, this colt ended up in the Middle East as the property of Godolphin Racing. His performance here will provide the first glimpse into the strength of the Dubai-based 3-year-olds.
Although they won't arrive in this country for another week, the top two Godolphin candidates for the Derby are Worldly Manner and Aljabr. The latter lost a little luster Thursday when he narrowly won the second and final Dubai trial race, prevailing by a mere neck against six horses of questionable ability.
In the Wood Memorial, New York's primary prep for the Derby, Badge is the tepid morning-line favorite because of his 7 1/2-length triumph in the Gotham Stakes.
Edgar Prado will ride Karly's Harley, the Belmont-based gelding who won the Herat Stakes at Laurel Park. Vance, who owns Lemon Drop Kid, also owns Bugatti. And Allaire duPont's Bohemia Stable owns Maryland-bred Best of Luck.
In the Arkansas Derby, the top four choices could wind up in the Kentucky Derby: Answer Lively (2-1), Certain (5-2), Ecton Park (7-2) and Etbauer (9-2).
Blue Grass Stakes
Time/TV: 5: 15 p.m., chs. 2, 7
Site: Keeneland (Ky.)
Favorites: Wondertoss (5-2), Vicar (3-1)
Time/TV: 5: 42 p.m., chs. 2, 7
Site: Aqueduct (N.Y.)
Favorites: Badge (3-1), Adonis (4-1)
Time/TV: 6: 15 p.m., ESPN
Site: Oaklawn Park (Ark.)
Favorites: Answer Lively (2-1), Certain (5-2)
Note: Each race is 1 1/8 miles
Pub Date: 4/10/99