Fillies make starting case

Excellent Meeting, Three Ring stake out reasons to run in Derby

April 30, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- They've been running the Kentucky Derby since 1875, and three fillies have won.

When the 125th renewal of this great race for 3-year-olds takes place tomorrow, at least one filly will line up in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Three Ring, owned in part by Barry K. Schwartz, CEO of Calvin Klein Inc., has been pointed to the Derby for more than a month.

A second filly, the Bob Baffert-trained Excellent Meeting, is also entered in the Derby. She's entered as well in today's Kentucky Oaks, the filly's counterpart to the Derby.

After saying the night before that Excellent Meeting would likely run in the Derby, Baffert said yesterday that he still hadn't decided.

"We're leaving our options open," Baffert said, repeating a refrain that has become his trademark. "Excellent Meeting could easily run in the Derby. She seems to love this track. I think she's coming up to the best race of her life."

If Three Ring and Excellent Meeting start in the Derby, it will be the eighth time in 125 years that two fillies have competed in the male-dominated race. In all, 36 fillies have contested the Derby. The three winners were Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988.

D. Wayne Lukas trained Winning Colors, who led her 17-horse field all the way, holding off the charging Forty Niner by a neck. Lukas, who will be inducted this summer into racing's hall of fame, said he believes Three Ring and Excellent Meeting will have their hands full.

"The thing about these fillies, including Baffert's, is they've been running against fillies," Lukas said. "And Three Ring, for example, is going to get pressure she hasn't experienced before.

"It's one thing to lope four and five lengths in front of a couple of fillies and have it all your own way. It's another thing to have 18 or 19 head of horses, all of them male, surrounding you from every side and putting pressure on you every step of the way."

Lukas tested Winning Colors against males before throwing her in with the boys in the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Derby by 7 1/2 lengths.

Regret and Genuine Risk had also raced against males before the Derby. Neither Excellent Meeting nor Three Ring has.

Carl Nafzger, who trains the Derby colt Vicar as well as Banshee Breeze, last year's 3-year-old filly champion, said most fillies don't like to run against males.

"I really can't explain why, but they get dominated by colts," Nafzger said. "I think a lot of communication goes on between horses. I can't prove that. I just go back to wild horses.

"You put 10 mares in a paddock. You take the dominant mare out. Six months later you throw her back in with the same nine mares. Within 15 minutes, them just smelling and going over each other, she's the dominant mare again. They don't forget that stuff."

Still, the trainers of Excellent Meeting and Three Ring insist that their fillies are not only exceptionally talented but also sufficiently seasoned to tackle the males.

"We think she's the best 3-year-old -- period -- regardless of gender," said Eddie Plesa Jr., Three Ring's Florida-based trainer. "She's a big, robust filly. Physically, she's probably as attractive as most of the boys, if not all of them. Mentally, she's just got a great mind, nothing really rattles her. She's got all the components."

What she doesn't have -- and what most Derby winners had -- is experience in a race farther than 1 1/16 miles. Most males in the race have already attempted 1 1/8 miles. For all, male and female, the Derby's 1 1/4 miles is a new, and often humbling, experience.

Three Ring has flashed dazzling speed against fillies in graded stakes of 1 1/16 miles and 1 mile, 70 yards (slightly less than 1 1/16 miles) at Gulfstream Park. She won the last two by 6 1/4 and 14 3/4 lengths.

Her style and No. 2 post position make a convincing case for her being the Derby's early leader. Her detractors say that by the time she hits the far turn, she will be one spent filly.

What's more, Three Ring hasn't raced since March 16, another negative if you examine historical trends of past Derby winners. Plesa, her trainer, said that is not a problem either. Three Ring runs better with time between races, he said.

Of eight starts, she has won five, finished second twice and third once. Her third was in her lone race at Churchill Downs in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, her only venture outside Florida.

The two who beat her were Baffert's Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting.

"They beat me, but I wouldn't trade Three Ring for either one," Plesa said. "My filly is a lot better now than she was back then. I'm looking forward to running against them both sometime."

He may get half his wish tomorrow if Excellent Meeting remains in the Derby. Baffert has said for months that of his two outstanding fillies, Excellent Meeting is better suited to the Derby distance -- although Silverbulletday, racing today in the Oaks, would possibly have been the Derby favorite.

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