Potential Derby wealth spread around

California to Ireland, 3-year-olds take a run at proving credentials

Horse Racing

April 06, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Four weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and look what we have here.

We have Derby prospects running in Florida and California. No surprise there. But we also have them running in Illinois and Ireland. Yep, Ireland.

If that doesn't tickle your fancy, we have two of the best 3-year-old fillies running at Keeneland (Take Charge Lady and Bob Manfuso's Belterra) and top older horses of both genders running at Oaklawn Park.

Talk about an embarrassment of riches. In one race alone, the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn, five of the six fillies and mares are Grade I winners. One is Fleet Renee, trained by Michael Dickinson at his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County.

But 3-year-olds are our focus, and make no mistake: This is the time to start zeroing in on those youngsters likely to make headlines May 4 in the Derby and May 18 in the Preakness. Several major contenders will compete this weekend in races, literally, around the world.

Today, Came Home will head a field of eight in the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park in California. And Repent, consistent and powerful, tops a field of 10 in the Grade II, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in Chicago. Both races will be televised on ESPN during a one-hour broadcast beginning at 5 p.m.

Also today, Equality will start as the likely favorite in the $250,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park in South Florida.

Trained and ridden by the Maryland-based H. Graham Motion and Ramon Dominguez, respectively, Equality bulled into the Derby picture with a 16 1/2 -length romp in a Gulfstream allowance race and a 2 1/4 -length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby that broke the stakes record.

Now, another Derby is on Motion's mind, the Kentucky Derby.

"You've got to keep it in mind, because it's so wide open," Motion said of the battle so far for Derby berths.

It's so wide-open that horses such as Came Home and Johannesburg are ranked at the top of Derby contenders.

Neither horse will likely want anything to do with the Derby's 1 1/4 miles, and Johannesburg, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, will attempt the nearly impossible. The undefeated colt (7-for-7) would race in the Derby off only one prep, a seven-furlong test on turf, the Gladness Stakes tomorrow at The Curragh in his home country of Ireland.

Even his trainer, the astute Aidan O'Brien, seems to be grasping at straws. During a teleconference this week with reporters, he said Johannesburg looks like a "nailed-on miler."

Said O'Brien: "The reality of this is, he was probably a freak as a 2-year-old. So really we're hoping that he's going to be a freak at 3. ... We're just hoping."

Came Home arrived from California undefeated for the Breeders' Cup and toting a reputation of being a sprinter or, at most, a miler. He faded to seventh in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile, but he has won his other five races at distances from five furlongs to one mile.

Still, he will likely be the overwhelming favorite in the Santa Anita Derby despite its 1 1/8 miles. John Toffan, one of Came Home's owners, acknowledges the shortcomings of this group of 3-year-olds.

Toffan was part-owner of Free House, who battled through the Triple Crown series in 1997 with Silver Charm and the Maryland-based Captain Bodgit.

"If any of those three horses were in this year," Toffan said, "they'd look like they had a super chance to win the Triple Crown."

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