Two in Wood knocking on Derby door

Big test for `Oro,' Buddha

2 other preps on marquee

Horse Racing

April 12, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - For a further glimpse into this murky crystal ball of Kentucky Derby prognosticating, focus for a moment upon two horses: Medaglia d'Oro and Buddha.

They have each raced only three times, yet Medaglia d'Oro is the morning-line favorite and Buddha the early third choice in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes tomorrow at Aqueduct.

Their high standing despite a conspicuous lack of seasoning exemplifies the bewildering search for stars in this year's Kentucky Derby firmament.

"A lot of entries in these weekend races are just a reflection of how wide open this year is," said Bill Mott, trainer of Wood entrant Blue Burner, a veteran by comparison with five starts. "This weekend should go a long way toward clearing up the picture."

Of tomorrow's three crucial tests for Derby aspirants, the Wood features the most horses groomed for possible greatness. How soon greatness might come provides the drama that makes not only the Wood, but also the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby among the most anticipated races of the year.

Of the 25 3-year-olds entered in the crucial Derby preps, none has flashed more hints of brilliance than Medaglia d'Oro and Buddha.

The former is the latest miracle performed by Bobby Frankel, the three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer whose starters already have earned more than $3 million this year.

One of Frankel's longtime clients, retired California businessman Edmund Gann, bought Medaglia d'Oro in February for Frankel to train. When Frankel first laid hands upon the imposing El Prado colt, he had raced only twice, both at six furlongs.

Three weeks later, Frankel saddled Medaglia d'Oro for a shocking upset victory over Siphonic, then the Kentucky Derby favorite, in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

Named for a brand of espresso coffee (his dam is Cappucino Bay), Medaglia d'Oro lost his early lead by a full two lengths only to recharge down the stretch for a 2 1/2 -length victory.

"When they ran by him like that, I thought he was just a sprinter - thought he was dead, you know," Frankel said. "I was shocked when he came on again."

Frankel downplays his handling of the colt, his transforming the six-furlong maiden winner into a Grade II victor and possible Wood Memorial favorite.

"I'm an optimist, maybe too much so," Frankel said. "I always think you can conquer the world with these horses. I run them. If I think they're good enough, I'll take a shot in the stakes races, especially with really young horses."

Frankel said Medaglia d'Oro must run well tomorrow to earn a trip to the Kentucky Derby in three weeks at Churchill Downs.

"I have to see the race to see how he runs, and then we'll get an idea," he said. "I'm thinking he's going to run pretty good, to be honest with you."

H. James Bond expressed the same confidence in Buddha, his lightly raced Derby prospect. The son of Unbridled's Song sizzled in his two races as a 3-year-old, both at Gulfstream Park. He won the first by 4 1/4 lengths, and then romped by 9 1/2 lengths on the Florida Derby undercard.

"It's a step up," Bond said of leaping from an allowance race into a Grade I stakes. "But this colt gives me a lot of good vibes. When I time him in the mornings, I can't believe how fast he's going, and he does it so easily."

Bond has never started a horse in the Derby, and he says he won't start Buddha unless he believes he has a chance of winning. He should find out about that by time the time the field turns for home in the Wood.

"Every one of these horses has a license to be a good horse," Bond said. "A couple are playing catch-up, including mine. But it's wide open. And my colt is doing well at the right time."

NOTE: Bob Baffert, the wise-cracking trainer from Southern California, will apparently return to the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, a two-time winner of the country's biggest race, seemed shut out when his last Derby hope, Danthebluegrassman, finished last in the Santa Anita Derby. But yesterday, one of Baffert's primary owners, The Thoroughbred Corp. of Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, announced that it had purchased War Emblem, front-running winner of the Illinois Derby, and would turn him over to Baffert to prepare for the Derby.

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