Kentucky dreaming begins in Florida

Fountain of Youth launches Derby quest

February 19, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- This time last year the sporting world knew nothing of Charismatic. He was an obscure former claimer out of favor in the high-profile barn of D. Wayne Lukas.

As sports fans now know, Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 31-1 and then the Preakness at 8-1. He lost the Triple Crown after breaking a leg in the Belmont. He survived, retired and was voted 1999 Horse of the Year.

So, go ahead: Pick the winner of Kentucky Derby 2000 on this blissful Florida morning. (With apologies, Maryland.) Keep in mind that the chasm of time between today and the first Saturday in May -- 11 perilous weeks -- will devour far more young thoroughbreds than the one it will christen as the next Charismatic.

For now, hope abounds for all fans with an eye toward spring -- but especially for the human connections of the 11 3- year-olds entered in today's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park as well as other potential Derby winners at tracks around the country.

"Reality and objectivity go right out the window -- for everyone," Lukas said yesterday at his Gulfstream barn, discussing the allure of the Kentucky Derby. "That's what makes the race so special.

"Everybody in sports is trying to get to the ultimate prize, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four. In our game it's the Derby. It's the dream that fuels the game."

The Fountain of Youth sets the game in play as the first major 3-year-old stakes featuring so many contenders as well as the first clash between East and West horses. Lukas' High Yield, who cost $1,050,000 as a yearling, is the tepid 3-1 program favorite after two straight second-place finishes in top California stakes.

But High Yield, a son of the nation's most expensive stallion, Storm Cat, has lost five consecutive races and won only twice in nine tries. The second favorite, 4-1 Greenwood Lake, finished a dismal sixth in his last race, the Holy Bull Stakes five weeks ago at Gulfstream.

"You can underestimate your horse if he gets beat here; that's how deep this race is," said Elliott Walden, whose Elite Mercedes drew an outside starting post. "Any one of eight or nine can win it.

"But it's the kind of race that down the road you can look back and maybe say it made sense. It could be the emergence of a horse."

Or, the Fountain of Youth, despite its illustrious history as the producer of 33 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners, could become disappearing ink in the current volume of racing lore.

"There's nothing that says this race will mean anything in 2 1/2 months," said Kentucky trainer Ken McPeek. "Everything's still wide-open."

McPeek has saddled one Derby starter, Tejano Run, who finished second in 1995 behind Thunder Gulch (another long-shot Derby winner at 24-1). McPeek said he believes his Fountain of Youth entrant, Deputy Warlock, who looked dazzling yesterday on the track, is a legitimate Derby horse.

A son of Silver Deputy and the Forty Niner mare Date Stone, Deputy Warlock not only sports a name worthy of immortality but also a mouth-watering record of grit and promise. He has won three of four races despite problems last year with ulcers and lung sickness.

The colt won his last race, the Hawthorne Juvenile Stakes on Nov. 13 at Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois, despite an ailment discovered afterward.

"He won that Hawthorne race with a lung infection," McPeek said. "That's what I call a good horse."

Still, McPeek views the Fountain of Youth as a steppingstone to the goal, the Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs. That strategy in Derby preps makes the bettors' job even more difficult. How do gamblers know whether the horse is ready to win or merely advance along the trainer's schedule?

"If he can run within five lengths of these horses," McPeek said of his late-running stylist, "and be closing fast, we'll move on to the next level."

Trainers coast-to-coast embrace that view as Derby trials approach in California, New York, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. In California, winter home of the past four Derby winners, the season's most intriguing 3-year-old resides. Her name is Surfside.

She's a filly with a heavenly pedigree, the first foal of Flanders (1994 champion 2-year-old filly) sired by Seattle Slew (1997 Triple Crown winner). And Lukas, her trainer, has said she's his No. 1 Derby prospect despite his abundance of expensive 3-year-old colts.

The winner of six of eight (third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies after a wide trip from an outside post), Surfside will race twice more before the Derby. She is scheduled to run March 12 in the Santa Anita Oaks against fillies and April 8 in the Santa Anita Derby for the first time against males.

"She's got everything but the gender factor," Lukas said (only three fillies have won the Derby, including Lukas' Winning Colors). "If they stuck them all in the starting gate tomorrow, she'd go off the favorite. If she gets by these next two, she's going to pack them into the stands at Churchill."

Lukas said he has at least two other strong Derby prospects (in addition to High Yield): Exchange Rate, who competes tomorrow in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Commendable, an untested son of Gone West who hasn't raced farther than seven furlongs.

"If he can't run, he's really got me fooled," Lukas said of Commendable. "If they stuck them all in the gate in a week, I'm not sure I wouldn't bet on him."

Lukas' nemesis in California, Bob Baffert, isn't as well stocked as in recent years, but he trains Captain Steve, a stakes-winning closer pointed toward the Louisiana Derby March 12 at the Fair Grounds.

Other Derby contenders out West include Anees, Dixie Union, The Deputy and War Chant. Back East you've got Red Bullet, More Than Ready, Scottish Halo and Postponed -- plus the 11 in the dream-filled Fountain of Youth, set for 5: 20 p.m. in the sunlight of a waning Florida afternoon.

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