Road to Kentucky makes stop in La.

Kafwain, `Silver' match up

win for either would earn Derby favorite's role

Horse Racing

March 08, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The first significant showdown on the road to the Kentucky Derby will take place tomorrow at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans between Kafwain and Badge of Silver, the top two Derby contenders as ranked by the Daily Racing Form.

The pair will meet in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby, the most important Derby prep of the season so far. If either wins, he will be anointed the clear favorite for the Kentucky classic, although with eight weeks remaining to the May 3 race, that distinction may be tenuous.

Major stakes for 3-year-olds whose connections have Derby aspirations will now become weekly occurrences, and prospects will rise and fall. With the loss of the big three now nearly complete, the competition is as wide-open as ever.

The connections of Vindication and Toccet had already confirmed that injuries would keep their horses out of the Derby. This week, John Ward Jr., the trainer of Sky Mesa, said Derby plans for his undefeated colt were on hold.

Sky Mesa, who hasn't raced in five months, bruised a foot after recovering from a wrenched ankle. The colt has missed so much training that Ward's minimum goal of two races before the Kentucky Derby will probably be impossible to meet.

Ward, who trained Monarchos, winner of the 2001 Derby, went so far as to urge Churchill Downs officials to place Sky Mesa in the mutuel field when round two of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens this weekend.

The wager, available at Maryland tracks and off-track betting outlets, offers win betting on 23 designated 3-year-olds, as well as the mutuel field, which includes all other 3-year-olds.

When betting closed after Round 1 three weeks ago, the field was 2-1, and the leading individual was Badge of Silver at 11-1. Kafwain, Sky Mesa and Empire Maker were 12-1.

Who is Badge of Silver? He has raced only three times, but he won those races by a combined 26 lengths. He is trained by Ronny Werner, a Texan and former quarter-horse trainer who has never had a starter in a Triple Crown race.

Badge of Silver won his first race, a 4 1/2 -furlong dash last April at Keeneland, by nine lengths. Shortly afterward, he underwent surgery for a fractured cannon bone in his right foreleg. Screws were inserted, later removed, and the colt ran next in a six-furlong allowance race in January at the Fair Grounds. He won by seven lengths.

That set the stage for his stakes debut Feb. 16 in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds. Badge of Silver triumphed by 10 lengths, running 1 1/16 miles in 1 minute, 42.99 seconds, a mere 0.01 of a second off the stakes record.

"I always knew he was special. I always knew that he was very fast," Werner said. "But to do that the way he did it against a bunch of good horses, you know, it makes your hair stand up."

Kafwain is more familiar to bettors and racing fans because he has raced nine times, finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and is trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert.

The question surrounding Kafwain, and so many other Derby hopefuls, is distance. They will all face 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the Derby.

"Everybody asks the same question," said Victor Espinoza, who has ridden Kafwain in all his races. "But this horse, the more distance the better for him. I think the Kentucky Derby will be perfect for him."

Another intriguing horse in the Louisiana Derby is Funny Cide, managed by former Maryland trainer Barclay Tagg. Funny Cide is a New York-bred who has won three times against other New York-breds.

In his one attempt in open company, the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, he had little chance starting from post 13, ran admirably and finished fifth.

"I can't go bragging about this horse right now," Tagg said. "All he's done is win three New York races. But he did win them well. Then he had that bad race in the Holy Bull, which leaves us all up in the air."

A Maryland-bred in the same position is Cherokee's Boy, who officially launched his Derby-Preakness bid one week ago with a 7 1/4 -length romp in the Deputed Testamony Stakes at Laurel Park.

Bred, owned, trained and ridden in Maryland, Cherokee's Boy has won four restricted stakes but has yet to win in open stakes company.

He'll likely get that chance a week from tomorrow in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Gary Capuano, his Bowie trainer, said the one-mile Gotham and then, possibly, the Wood Memorial Stakes will determine whether Cherokee's Boy has a future in the spring classics.

"I still don't know if he's that good or not," Capuano said. "He hasn't shown me yet he can beat top horses. We're beginning to move in that direction to find out if he can."

Two other races today are of interest to Derby watchers, the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, featuring top prospect Ministers Wild Cat, and the Santa Anita Oaks, featuring the top filly Composure. Baffert, her trainer, said that despite his arsenal of colts, Composure might be his Derby horse.

ESPN will televise the Louisiana Derby tomorrow during a one-hour broadcast beginning at 6 p.m. The El Camino Real Derby will be shown on tape.

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