Probe of Ark. Derby casts shadow over Ky. Derby entries

Investigation may affect earnings-based qualifying

April 24, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The final countdown to next Saturday's Kentucky Derby begins with the owners of more than 20 horses seeking glory in this nation's showcase race. Some will be disappointed even before the race is run.

The Derby field is limited to 20 starters -- the 20 with the most earnings in graded-stakes races. Usually, that's easy to figure. This year, because of the investigation into Valhol's victory in the Arkansas Derby, the earnings of several potential starters remain in limbo.

Billy Patin, the jockey of Valhol, a maiden until his runaway win in Arkansas, has been accused of carrying an illegal battery-operated device used to jolt horses into running faster. Patin has denied using or carrying the device, although replays of the ESPN broadcast clearly show the jockey dropping something as he brings the horse to a stop after the race.

The Arkansas Racing Commission has scheduled a hearing Monday, and Valhol's owner, Jim Jackson of Rockdale, Texas, has hired lawyers to fight for Valhol's entry into the Derby.

The $300,000 winner's share of the Arkansas Derby has been withheld pending the outcome of the investigation. Without the money, Valhol probably won't make the cut. He has earned only $38,400 in graded stakes.

The second-through-fifth finishers in the Arkansas Derby have already received their checks. But if Arkansas officials were to disqualify Valhol and move the other horses up, their earnings -- as well as sixth-place finisher Etbauer -- would be enhanced.

That would affect only horses with the slimmest of chances in the Derby, so worrying about their earnings is hardly worth the fuss.

What is worth noting is Bob Baffert's decision to consider entering Excellent Meeting, one of his two outstanding fillies, in the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.

Trying to do what no trainer has done and win his third straight Derby, Baffert holds a strong hand with General Challenge and Prime Timber, the first two finishers in the Santa Anita Derby. They will likely be the favorites at Churchill Downs.

Baffert Baffert said this week he may cross-enter Excellent Meeting in the Derby as insurance against General Challenge drawing a poor post position in a 20-horse field. If General Challenge were to draw poorly, both horses would run as an entry because of common ownership. They're owned by Betty and John Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm, a top breeding center in California.

If General Challenge were to draw a favorable starting spot, Baffert would withdraw Excellent Meeting and race her Friday in the Oaks, the 3-year-old fillies' equivalent of the Derby. That would create two dilemmas.

One, it would pit Excellent Meeting against Silverbulletday, Baffert's other talented filly. Baffert said Silverbulletday, a winner of nine of 10, holds the advantage at 1 1/8 miles, the Oaks distance. He said Excellent Meeting, never worse than third in 11 races, is better suited to the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.

Two, by entering Excellent Meeting in the Derby and then scratching her, Baffert would keep one horse out of the race (more to the point, he would deny those associated with one horse the pleasure of participating in the most glamorous of races).

Post positions will be drawn Wednesday for only 20 horses. Excellent Meeting's exit would leave the field at 19.

That wouldn't be bad from a handicapper's standpoint, because 20 horses constantly jostling for position guarantee bad trips for good horses. And this Derby, the 125th, abounds with good horses.

"This seems to be a very competitive, closely matched group of 3-year-olds," said Pat Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who rides Menifee. "Nobody seems to be running away at the head of the class.

"They're all good horses. Whether any are great horses remains to be seen."

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