Non-Derby horses fresh out of luck

Debate: Booklet and eight others in the Preakness field didn't compete in the Kentucky Derby. Though more rested, none will win Saturday, if past odds hold up.

127th Preakness

May 16, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

John Ward Jr., who trained last year's Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, skipped the Derby this year with Booklet. Now, he says, he has a fresh horse to take on those weary warriors who battled less than two weeks ago at Churchill Downs.

"This is a very calculated move on our part," Ward says. "We laid out of the Derby purposefully to have a fresh horse for the Preakness. We felt of the three classics this was the one we had the best chance to win.

"We look to be fresh and resilient. That means a lot in the Preakness."

Whether Booklet or any of the other eight "fresh" horses can win the Preakness remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: History is not on their side.

Since Deputed Testamony captured the Preakness in 1983, only one horse who skipped the first leg of the Triple Crown has won the second leg. That was Red Bullet in 2000.

During that stretch of 18 Preaknesses, 72 "fresh" horses competed in the race. Only seven finished in the money (first, second or third).

Still, owners and trainers of horses from all parts of the country send their rested runners to Baltimore the third Saturday in May for one of sports' premier events. This Saturday, nine non-Derby horses will try to outrun War Emblem (the Derby winner), Proud Citizen (Derby runner-up), Medaglia d'Oro (Derby fourth-place finisher) and Harlan's Holiday (Derby favorite who finished seventh).

Those nine horses ranged in "freshness" from Equality and USS Tinosa, who raced six weeks ago, to Menacing Dennis, who raced three weeks ago. Three of the nine horses (Crimson Hero, Straight Gin and USS Tinosa) would have run two weeks ago in the Derby if they had gotten into the race. They were excluded from the original 20-horse field because of insufficient earnings.

Trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, winners of six of the past eight Preaknesses, say the reason that Derby horses bounce back in two weeks to win the Preakness is simple: They are the best horses.

"The best horses run in the Derby, because that's the race we all want to win," says Baffert, winner of three Derbies and three Preaknesses. "If you're not good enough to run in the Derby, you're not good enough to run in the Preakness."

Baffert trains this year's Derby winner War Emblem. Lukas trains the Derby runner-up Proud Citizen. A Hall of Fame trainer, Lukas has started 26 horses in 18 Preaknesses and won five.

"People say, `Well, I'm going to wait for the Preakness,' " Lukas says. "There is usually an underlying cause. People just don't skip the Derby. It's too big a plum."

Ward and Booklet's owner decided two days after their colt's second-place finish April 13 in the Blue Grass Stakes that they would pass on the Derby and wait for the Preakness. Booklet has never won a race farther than 1 1/16 miles. The Preakness is the shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles, although it is still a long race by any measure.

Booklet may hold the key. He is fast enough to challenge War Emblem early, something no horse did in the Preakness. War Emblem galloped along on an easy lead and drew off for a four-length victory.

"You are probably going to see those two hooked together for most of the race," Ward says. "Now, whether those two finish together or somebody goes by them, I'm really not sure because everybody is going to be going after War Emblem."

Ward acknowledges that Derby horses usually fare better in the Preakness. He says that's because the best 3-year-olds run in the Derby. Ward considers Booklet one of the best 3-year-olds who strategically bypassed the Derby for the Preakness.

Booklet's strengths, according to Ward? He's rested, and he'll have five-time Preakness winner Pat Day aboard.

"He is a master of riding the Pimlico course," Ward says. "He's able to do it with horses who have live speed. I think it's a dangerous weapon in Pat's hands."

At 10-1, Booklet is the lowest-priced newcomer in the morning line. Easyfromthegitgo and USS Tinosa are next at 15-1.

Managed by northern California's dominant trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, USS Tinosa was a highly regarded Derby prospect until finishing a dull fifth April 6 in the Santa Anita Derby. He missed the Kentucky Derby cut, but his sizzling four-furlong breeze Tuesday in 46 2/5 seconds indicates his readiness, er, freshness, for the Preakness.

Easyfromthegitgo has never finished worse than third in nine races. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the Dehere colt has raced against War Emblem, Proud Citizen and Repent. He lost the Louisiana Derby by the shortest of noses to Repent, who at the time was the leading Kentucky Derby candidate in the East.

"He's kept good company all the time," Asmussen says. "I am concerned about the distance. I am concerned about how good War Emblem has gotten. But [Easyfromthegitgo] deserves the opportunity. You only get one chance to be in the classics. This is it for him."

H. Graham Motion, a Marylander, trains the 20-1 Equality, as well-rested as any horse in the Preakness. The Mount Livermore colt won the Tampa Bay Derby in March, and if he had won the Aventura Stakes April 6 at Gulfstream Park he might have run in the Kentucky Derby, Motion says. But when Equality finished second, Motion pointed him toward the Preakness.

"If you've really got a good horse you're probably going to run him in the Derby," Motion says. "But I think you're going to see it happen more and more, horses skipping the Derby and waiting for the Preakness."

Motion notes that trainers more and more are running their horses less and less - picking their spots without wearing their horses out. And this year, he says, may be even more favorable than usual for running a fresh horse in the Preakness.

"I think there are suspicions about the quality of the whole [3-year-old] crop this year," Motion says. "With things so wide-open it certainly seems like the year you might take a shot."

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