Derby picture's rarely been foggier

6 weeks before classic, 3-year-old crop keeps everybody guessing

Horse Racing

March 23, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Clear as mud, they say. Gamblers must have muttered that about these 3-year-olds staggering, sputtering, clawing their way to the Kentucky Derby.

This is the murkiest picture in years at this stage of the Derby march. It's six weeks to the first of the Triple Crown races and eight weeks to the Preakness, and all we know is that we don't know anything.

Contenders fall by the wayside each week, and new ones emerge. Even those who manage to stick on the trail leave crumbs of doubt about stamina and experience, not to mention that most basic quality of all: Ability.

Yesterday, trainer David Hofmans announced that Siphonic, at one time the West's top Derby hope, would be sidelined indefinitely because of a sore right-front ankle. The promising son of Siphon faded uncharacteristically to third in the San Felipe Stakes last Sunday at Santa Anita Park.

As Siphonic backed out of the picture, a new contender rushed in to replace him. In just his third race and his first for miracle-working trainer Bobby Frankel, Madaglia D'Oro overtook Siphonic in the stretch, won the San Felipe and catapulted over more seasoned horses into the top ranks of 3-year-olds.

The fact that this son of El Prado, whom hardly anyone had heard of a week ago, is now considered a leading contender for Derby honors is testament to the unpredictability of this year's hopefuls.

"I don't ever remember seeing it like this before," said Maryland-based trainer H. Graham Motion. "I just think it's so wide open. Every week you get a new group of horses."

This week, we got Motion's Equality, who smashed the stakes record with a 2 1/4 -length victory last Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby. Ramon Dominguez, based at Laurel, rode the colt.

While the Derby lens focused last weekend on Florida and California, it peers today at the Nad Al Sheba racecourse in the Middle East and Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.

The Laurel-based Saratoga Blues will compete in the $500,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway. Even though the Twining colt is 3-for-3 at Laurel and Aqueduct, his trainer, Tony Dutrow, said that he is not a Kentucky Derby candidate. Saratoga Blues could, however, throw his hat into the ring for the Preakness.

A handful of horses, including Request for Parole, Perfect Drift and the Nick Zito-trained Straight Gin will battle in the Spiral for Derby berths. The race will be televised on tape on ESPN2 in a one-hour show beginning at 6:30 p.m. today.

Also scheduled for broadcast on the show is the taped running of the United Arab Emirates Derby from Dubai in the Middle East, featuring the Godolphin Stable's shining 3-year-olds. At $2 million, it is easily the richest Kentucky Derby prep, and at 1 1/4 miles it is the only one at the Derby's demanding distance.

The UAE Derby is part of the seven-race program worth $15.25 million (the world's richest day of racing) that features the $6 million Dubai World Cup (yep, it's the world's richest race). Maryland's racetracks and off-track-betting centers will open at 9:30 a.m. today and show four of the races live and one, the UAE Derby, on tape.

Although Sakhee, the top-ranked horse in the world, will be favored in the Dubai World Cup, the eyes of Marylanders will be upon Xtra Heat in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen (post time 11:10 a.m.).

The Laurel-based filly will likely be favored in the six-furlong sprint (you got it; it's the world's richest sprint). Her trainer, John Salzman, a veteran Maryland horseman, reports that all is well with Xtra Heat in Dubai.

Her nemesis, Caller One, will likely provide the sternest test. The 5-year-old gelding won this race last year by 4 1/2 lengths. Its six furlongs are straight; there is no turn. That means the two speedsters will step on the gas out of the gate and not let up until the wire. There is nothing in horse racing more exciting than that.

NOTE: Despite this plethora of televised stakes races, Laurel Park will offer none live. Racing officials canceled the Gala Lil Stakes, a $50,000 race for older fillies and mares, after only three of the 14 nominees were entered. Tomorrow, Laurel will feature the $40,000 Horatius Stakes for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs.

Tom Keyser's Derby Dozen

Horse....Sire......Trainer.....Jockey....Last race....Next start....Comment....Odds*

Harlan's Holiday....Harlan...Ken McPeek...Edgar Prado...1st Florida Derby Blue Grass, April 13....Fla. Derby set up perfectly for him 5-1

Repent Louis Quatorze Ken McPeek Jerry Bailey 1st Louisiana Derby Illinois Derby, April 6 Drops to No. 2 on McPeek depth chart 8-1

Saarland Unbridled Shug McGaughey John Velazquez 2nd Gotham Stakes Wood Memorial, April 13 Playing catch-up but bred for classics 10-1 Medaglia D'Oro El Prado Bobby Frankel Laffit Pincay Jr. 1st San Felipe Stakes Wood Memorial, April 13 Frankel pulls another out of hat 8-1

Blue Burner French Deputy Bill Mott Jerry Bailey 2nd Florida Derby Wood Memorial, April 13 Respectable runner-up in Fla. Derby 20-1

Equality Mt. Livermore H. Graham Motion Ramon Dominguez 1st Tampa Bay Derby undecided Shattered stakes record in TB Derby 40-1

Request for Parole Judge T C Steve Margolis Pat Day 1st Battaglia Stakes Spiral Stakes, today 2-for-2 in stakes at Turfway 40-1

Perfect Drift Dynaformer Murray Johnson Eddie Delahoussaye 2nd Battaglia Stakes Spiral Stakes, today Second in last two to "Parole" 60-1

Johannesburg Hennessy Aidan O'Brien Mike Kinane 1st Br. Cup Juvenile England allowance, April 6 Undefeated colt has uphill climb 6-1 Essence of Dubai Pulpit Saeed bin Suroor Frankie Dettori 1st UAE 2000 Guineas UAE Derby, today Godolphin's leader, still questionable 40-1 Came Home Gone West Paco Gonzalez Chris McCarron 1st San Rafael Stakes Santa Anita Derby, April 6 California 3-year-olds lack firepower 10-1 Danthebluegrassman Pioneering Bob Baffert David Flores 2nd El Camino Real Santa Anita Derby, April 6 Baffert's best hope in peculiar year 40-1

*Odds by Daily Racing Form

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