It's a Derby-flavored weekend

Four races in spotlight

Tapit tries Florida Derby

Horse Racing

March 13, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Three of the top Kentucky Derby contenders, the leading Maryland candidate for Derby glory and the horse - a filly - who could attract the most attention in the run for the roses compete in four races on both coasts on this, the year's most important weekend so far leading to the Triple Crown series.

At Gulfstream Park here in South Florida, Read the Footnotes and Tapit join eight other 3-year-olds today in the $1 million Florida Derby, the division's first Grade I stakes of the season. At this juncture, seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Read the Footnotes has accomplished the most of any 3-year-old on the Derby trail.

Tapit, making only the third start of his career and first as a 3-year-old, represents Maryland's top hope for a rooting interest in the spring classics - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His trainer, Michael Dickinson, is renowned for preparing horses for major wins off extensive layoffs.

One race after the Florida Derby on the same Gulfstream dirt, Eurosilver will seek his fourth straight win in the $150,000 Swale Stakes against five other 3-year-old hopefuls. The highly regarded colt is part of the triumvirate that gives two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito the hottest hand of any trainer focused on the first Saturday in May.

At Santa Anita Park in Southern California, Halfbridled, the undefeated filly and last year's champion 2-year-old female, makes her 3-year-old debut today in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks.

If Halfbridled continues dominating fillies and persuades her trainer to run her in the Kentucky Derby, then she will become the most compelling Derby story, especially if she regains her injured jockey, Julie Krone, the most recognizable rider in the country.

And finally, at Santa Anita tomorrow, Action This Day competes in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and last year's champion 2-year-old male lost his 3-year-old debut last month in the Sham Stakes. In the San Felipe, Action This Day could reaffirm his status as California's leading Kentucky Derby prospect.

Yes, it's a busy weekend, and it's merely the first significant stop on the unpredictable and often-turbulent road leading to the country's most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, on May 1 at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

"I don't think I should be 7-5," said Rick Violette, trainer of Read the Footnotes, the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the Florida Derby. "That's a lot more confident than I am."

After winning four of five races last year, Read the Footnotes won his 3-year-old debut a month ago, but only after a protracted, brutal stretch battle with Second of June in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Some speed-figure analysts rated that one of the most impressive performances by a 3-year-old in years.

Violette said he's worried the race took too much out of Read the Footnotes.

"He doesn't need another tough race," Violette said. "I think every horse needs one race like that to be successful in the Kentucky Derby. I'd like to have a couple of cakewalks these next two races."

He's not likely to get one in the Florida Derby. His major challenger, Value Plus, is one of the most spectacularly fast 3-year-olds in the country. But his ability to carry his speed the 1 1/8 miles of the Florida Derby is suspect, especially with the presence of the speedster Frisky Spider in the race. Breaking side-by-side, they could hook up in a suicidal early duel.

"I think we've got the fastest horse," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Value Plus. "But I definitely don't want just to prove he's faster than Frisky Spider for the first quarter mile of the Florida Derby.

"If he's a horse who's going to step up and be good enough, then he's going to have to deal with the Frisky Spiders of the world in the first part of a race."

Asked about the varying paths of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders, Pletcher said: "There's no set formula for how you have to arrive in Kentucky. If there were, then everybody would run in the same races. Come the first Saturday in May, we'll find out who was right in the way they took to get there."

Florida Derby field

PP Horse Trainer Jockey Record* Earnings Odds

1. The Cliff's Edge Nick Zito Shane Sellers 6: 3-2-0 $270,258 12-1

2. Friends Lake John Kimmel Richard Migliore 4: 2-0-1 $95,600 15-1

3. Read the Footnotes Rick Violette Jerry Bailey 6: 5-0-0 $390,660 7-5

4. Tapit Michael Dickinson Edgar Prado 2: 2-0-0 $79,800 5-1

5. Farnum Valley Tony Reinstedler Pat Day 4: 2-0-0 $48,215 20-1

6. Sir Oscar Marty Wolfson Julio Garcia 7: 6-0-0 $536,300 8-1

7. Notorious Rogue Mark Hennig Joe Bravo 7: 1-2-3 $85,390 20-1

8. Value Plus Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 5: 2-1-0 $107,400 3-1

9. Frisky Spider Robert Durso Eddie King Jr. 4: 3-0-0 $55,200 20-1

10. Smoocher David Bell Jose Santos 6: 2-1-0 $236,453 12-1

*-Starts: First-Second-Third

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