Tripling up today guarantees nothing in terms of Derby

Pletcher, other trainers keeping fingers crossed

Horse Racing

April 12, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Todd Pletcher claims a unique view of the proceedings today at this critical juncture on the road to the Kentucky Derby. He's the only trainer with a horse in each of the three stakes that will largely determine the Derby field in three weeks at Churchill Downs.

Pletcher is at Keeneland, where he'll saddle Lion Tamer in the Blue Grass Stakes. He will run Aristocrat in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Indy Dancer in the Wood Memorial Stakes here at Aqueduct. Like all but a handful of the 30 3-year-olds entered in the three races, Pletcher's must prove in these 1 1/8 -mile tests that they belong in the 1 1/4 -mile Derby.

"Sure, I'd love to run all three in the Derby," Pletcher said yesterday. "But I won't know until [today] whether they're going to step up and earn their way. This is the time of year when 3-year-olds do surprising things. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Pletcher shares the consensus view that one horse stands above the others in the quest to win the 129th Kentucky Derby.

"You'd have to say Empire Maker is the strong favorite right now," Pletcher said. "You'd have to say that of just about any horse that wins a race like the Florida Derby by 10 lengths.

"He's got the hottest trainer in the world. He's got one of the top riders in the world. And he's got the pedigree to do it. But remember, two years ago we all thought Point Given was in a class by himself. Things don't always unfold as we think they will on Derby day."

Point Given, the Derby favorite in 2001, finished fifth. He rebounded to dominate the Preakness and Belmont and be named Horse of the Year, and his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, insists that the chestnut colt is the best horse he's ever ridden. But Point Given faltered in the Derby. It happens.

If Empire Maker replicates his Florida Derby win against seven challengers in the Wood, then he could become the first odds-on favorite in the Derby since Arazi in 1992. (For the record, Arazi finished eighth.)

Horses sometimes regress after big efforts like Empire Maker's in the Florida Derby. But his trainer, Bobby Frankel, and his jockey, Jerry Bailey, said Empire Maker has so much ability he can improve off that race. They also believe he's that much better than any other candidate.

Their dilemma is trying to win a $750,000, Grade I race without demanding too much of their horse. His primary goal comes May 3 in the Kentucky Derby.

Bailey said he believes they can have their cake in the Wood and their icing in the Derby.

"I'm out there to try and win it; it's $750,000," he said of the Wood. "But I'm not going to beat him to death, hopefully, to do that. I don't think I'll have to. I think this horse can win, still improve a little bit, but not jump up and run the race of his life, which we want three weeks from now."

Frankel said his only concern about Empire Maker is a muddy track, the likely condition after a week of rain. The only horse in the field who has won in the mud is Sky Soldier. He romped in it two weeks ago in the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park.

"We've been doing a rain dance here," said Todd Beattie, who trains the 3-for-3 Sky Soldier at Penn National. "I think he's got a very good chance to get a piece."

Sky Soldier is 15-1 in the morning line. Empire Maker is 3-5, followed by likely contenders Indy Dancer at 5-1, Funny Cide at 6-1, New York Hero at 8-1 and Senor Swinger at 10-1.

This will be Senor Swinger's first race for trainer Bob Baffert. Two of his most loyal clients, Beverly and Bob Lewis, bought the horse after his fifth-place disappointment in the Florida Derby.

In the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, the Frankel-trained Peace Rules at 7-5 highlights the nine-horse field. In the Grade II, $500,000 Arkansas Derby, Eugene's Third Son at 3-1 and Man Among Men and Region Of Merit at 4-1 head the 12-horse field.

Two trainers from Maryland will watch carefully not so much for who might graduate to the Kentucky Derby but for who might bypass the Derby for the Preakness.

Larry Murray at Laurel Park and Gary Capuano at Bowie have their eyes on the Preakness as possible races for their promising 3-year-olds. The Murray-trained Foufa's Warrior closed for third last weekend in the Illinois Derby, and the Capuano-trained Cherokee's Boy finished fifth in the race.

Murray might run Foufa's Warrior on the turf as a possible prep for the Preakness, and Capuano might race Cherokee's Boy in the Federico Tesio Stakes next Saturday at Pimlico.

Wood Memorial

Where: Aqueduct, New York

When: Today, 4:15 p.m.

Grade: I

Purse: $750,000.

Distance: 1 1/8 miles.

TV: ESPN (live), 3:30 p.m.; Ch. 11 (tape), 4:30 p.m., with Blue Grass Stakes (live) and Arkansas Derby (live).

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