Fallen favorites leave empty Derby picture

It's `wide-open' 2 months before Run for the Roses

Horse Racing

March 03, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

At the close of 2002, 123 days before the Kentucky Derby, the picture looked as clear as a sunset over still waters. Three 2-year-olds stood out from the crowd, and they would lead the procession of 3-year-olds to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

On this first Monday of March, 61 days before the Kentucky Derby, clouds obscure the sun, and still waters have turned choppy. The Derby-Preakness picture has become as murky as usual.

Only one of those top 2-year-olds, Sky Mesa, remains on the Derby trail. And he has neither raced in 2003 nor signaled to his trainer that he's ready to race. Sky Mesa's road to the Derby remains uncharted.

John Ward Jr., Sky Mesa's trainer, says the colt has no more "wiggle room" in his training regimen if he's going to make the Derby at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May. And as Ward says this, Sky Mesa nurses a bruised heel, suffered after recovering from a wrenched ankle.

At most, Sky Mesa could race twice before the Derby. The last horse to win the Derby with two preps at age 3 was Sunny's Halo in 1983.

Still, Ward is undeterred. He realizes that Sky Mesa's preparation won't be ideal. But he hasn't seen a 3-year-old yet he thinks is better.

"I see it as a wide-open year," Ward says. "I'm keeping that in the back of my mind as the reason we can still proceed. At this point I haven't seen anything that would make me hesitate running a horse that's a little short."

Sky Mesa probably would have been favored by bettors in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in October at Arlington Park, but he missed the race after injuring an ankle. With Sky Mesa on the sideline, Vindication roared to a 2 3/4 -length victory and was voted the Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding 2-year-old.

As an undefeated (4-for-4) son of the late Seattle Slew, Vindication could have drawn unprecedented attention, at least in recent years, to the Triple Crown series. But the nearly black colt dropped by the wayside with a ligament injury, continuing a trend lasting a quarter-century.

No 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1978 has won the Derby the following year. Of the 24 juvenile champions since Spectacular Bid, including Vindication, only half even raced in the Derby.

Toccet, the other leading 2-year-old, won't make the Derby either. Dan Borislow, his owner from Florida, and John Scanlan, his trainer at Laurel Park, removed Toccet from Derby consideration last week after the colt bruised a foot. Toccet had just returned to training after recovering from what Borislow described as "remodeling" of the ankles.

Borislow says now they'll map a path to the Preakness. Toccet might not be completely fit even by then, Borislow says, in which case they'll use the Preakness as a prep for the Belmont. The goal, the owner says, is for Toccet to win the Eclipse Award as outstanding 3-year-old.

Ward, trainer of Sky Mesa and 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, says this annual defection of top horses from the Derby is predictable. The "curse" of no Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner ever winning the Kentucky Derby is no curse, Ward says; it's faulty scheduling.

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile should not be contested at 1 1/16 miles, Ward says. And not only is the Juvenile too long, he says, but the races leading up to it also are too long.

Those races are too demanding for a developing horse in the fall of his 2-year-old season, Ward says. If the Breeders' Cup Juvenile were seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile), the preps for it would be shorter as well.

"Maybe then we'd have more of these horses making it back into the Derby," Ward says.

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