Many doubts go to post as Derby is wide-open

Lacking real standouts, race puts all in running except scratched Buddha

Kentucky Derby

May 04, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Ward Jr., who trained last year's Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, says that a year like this, when no 3-year-old appears dominant, affords a late-developing horse the opportunity to win the Triple Crown.

Bob Baffert, a two-time winning trainer of the Derby, believes he knows who that horse might be. Baffert will saddle a pair in the 128th Kentucky Derby today at Churchill Downs; neither horse is the one.

"If I was going to trade for a horse, I'd trade for Frankel's," Baffert said, referring to Medaglia d'Oro, managed by three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Bobby Frankel. "When you've got a 3-year-old like that, when there's no real standout, that's when you might have a Triple Crown horse, if you get lucky."

For Medaglia d'Oro, or any horse in this field of 19, to win the Kentucky Derby - let alone sweep the Preakness and Belmont, too - he will have to overcome questions, doubts and outright skepticism. Certainly, no horse looks like a Triple Crown winner at this point. Each carries not only a jockey into the starting gate but also a potentially major flaw.

Of course, a couple of fortuitous minutes running around Churchill Downs' famous oval can eradicate any creeping doubt. For Buddha, however, opportunity vanished prematurely with soreness in his left front foot.

The promising winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes was scratched from the Derby yesterday with what was believed to be a minor injury, possibly a stone bruise or a twisted ankle or knee. His trainer, H. James Bond, on the verge of participating in his first Derby, was nearly in tears when he made the announcement.

"I always said I wouldn't come to the Derby unless I had a horse that could really run," Bond said. "I thought this was special. I thought this was going to be the horse."

Buddha's defection threatened to end the streak of 18 straight Derbies for Pat Day, the darling jockey of Churchill Downs. But within hours Day was tabbed to ride the long shot Blue Burner, whose jockey Corey Nakatani suffered a mild concussion in a spill Thursday at Hollywood Park.

Day was "tickled pink" to pick up the mount, but said he had been "as optimistic and enthusiastic as I've ever been" about riding Buddha. Day teamed with the gray son of Unbridled's Song for a hard-fought victory three weeks ago in the Wood at Aqueduct, edging Medaglia d'Oro, whom they would have battled again today.

That showdown was highly anticipated; the Derby would have been their fifth start, reflecting a growing trend of more and more lightly raced horses competing in the Derby.

Now, the burden falls to Medaglia d'Oro to try to prove that ability means more than experience in this country's most demanding race. The colt's trainer, the blunt-talking Frankel, leaves no doubt where he stands on the issue.

"You want a horse who can run, or a horse with experience?" he said.

Frankel didn't begin training Medaglia d'Oro until February, after he had broken his maiden at Oaklawn Park. Edmund Gann, a California businessman, bought the El Prado colt because his wife, Bernice, wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby.

In his first start for Frankel, Medaglia d'Oro upset Siphonic, the early Derby favorite, in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Frankel said that Medaglia d'Oro is more advanced at this stage than Aptitude, who finished second in the 2000 Derby behind Fusaichi Pegasus.

Asked whether Medaglia d'Oro could become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown, Frankel said: "He's good. ... This is going to be his hardest race. If he gets by this one, I think he might be dangerous."

To get by this one, Medaglia d'Oro will have to overcome a fact of history that has derailed earlier Derby and Triple Crown hopefuls. Since Exterminator won the Derby in 1918 in his fifth start, 17 horses as lightly raced have tried and failed.

Other Derby horses face similar historical barriers.

Harlan's Holiday, the tepid morning-line favorite, is an Ohio-bred. Only one horse born in Ohio has won the Kentucky Derby: Wintergreen in 1909.

Private Emblem, son of Our Emblem, a stallion standing at Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., is a New York-bred. No horse born in New York has ever won the Derby.

The two Irish horses, Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, have raced only once this year. The last Derby winner with one prep race was Bold Venture in 1936.

Perfect Drift is a gelding, and no gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 has won the Derby. Since then 74 have tried and failed.

Despite an enviable record, Perfect Drift would have to overcome another obstacle. He hasn't raced since winning the Spiral Stakes March 23 at Turfway Park. The last Derby winner who didn't race in April was Needles in 1956.

Horses enter the Derby every year with questions to answer and hurdles to clear. It's just that this Derby appears more perplexing than most.

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