This year, focus in Wood has payoffs as bottom line

Two of best in field need cash boost to make Derby

Horse Racing

April 09, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The Wood Memorial Stakes has spawned such stars as Assault, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox, Native Dancer, Secretariat and Seattle Slew.

The 80th running of New York's premier Kentucky Derby prep tomorrow at Aqueduct could showcase another equine hero. But this is an undistinguished 11-horse field in which the top three favorites have won a grand total of one stakes - and that wasn't even graded.

What's more, several of the potential stars in the field risk having to sit out the Derby because of a lack of earnings in graded stakes. If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, which seems a near certainty, then the field will be decided by how much horses have earned in Grade I, II and III stakes.

(Stakes are rated, or graded, on the quality of their fields. Grade I stakes are the toughest and most prestigious races.)

The preliminaries to the Derby this year have been so unpredictable and chaotic that the top two favorites in the Wood rank 33rd and 42nd on the list for graded-stakes earnings. Master David, the Wood's 5-2 morning-line favorite, has earned $58,000 in graded stakes (33rd), and Eddington, the 3-1 second favorite, has earned $20,000 (42nd).

If those horses get bumped at the break, or shuffled back around the turn, or blocked in the stretch, then they could miss qualifying for the 20 berths in the Derby starting gate.

"There's an outside chance the best 3-year-old could be sitting on the sidelines on Derby day," said Mark Hennig, trainer of Eddington.

Smarty Jones, the flashiest 3-year-old so far, makes Eddington and Master David look rich by comparison. He is undefeated after five starts and races tomorrow in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Four of Smarty Jones' victories have come in stakes, but none was graded. His bankroll for Kentucky Derby qualification is a big, fat zero.

With those horses and others risking Derby exclusion, the three major stakes for 3-year-olds tomorrow hold greater significance than usual. In addition to the Grade I Wood Memorial and Grade II Arkansas Derby, the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland offers a last chance for horses to earn their way into the Kentucky classic on May 1 at Churchill Downs.

Since this is the last time these horses will race before the Derby, their margin of error is practically nil. That puts a horse such as Master David, the Wood favorite, in a bind.

Bobby Frankel, his trainer, had planned on running him last month in the Florida Derby. But Master David got sick and missed the race. Now, entering the Wood off a nine-week layoff, he doesn't have the luxury of a soft race three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

"If we had run in the Florida Derby and gotten the graded-stakes earnings, we could have gone in here and just run," said Peter Minikes, one of Master David's owners. "We wouldn't have any pressure to win and risk putting the horse over the top. I'm sure Frankel realizes the situation, so he's going to have to have the screws a little bit tighter than he might have."

Minikes, 34, a New York financial adviser, and his partners bought Master David last year after he had raced three times on turf in England. They raced the Grand Slam colt in the Grade II Remsen Stakes in the fall at Aqueduct. He finished second behind Read the Footnotes.

Then they turned Master David over to Frankel, the country's dominant trainer. Based in California, Frankel raced the colt in the Grade II Santa Catalina Stakes in January at Santa Anita Park. He finished a fast-closing third. Three weeks later, Master David won the Sham, a non-graded stakes at Santa Anita, defeating the highly regarded 3-year-olds Borrego, Preachinatthebar and Action This Day.

That cemented Master David's credentials as a leading contender for the Triple Crown series. Frankel planned on racing him next in the Florida Derby, a Grade I stakes worth $1 million last month at Gulfstream Park. But Master David came down with a fever a week before the race. Frankel kept him in California and redrew the plan. Master David would have one chance to earn a ticket to Louisville: the Wood.

"It wasn't designed the way it turned out," Minikes said. "But I think he's definitely shown he could be one of the better 3-year-olds. Now, he's got to prove it in the Wood."

Like Master David, Eddington has remained high on most Kentucky Derby-contender lists because of potential. They've even inched higher as favorites such as Action This Day, Birdstone, Eurosilver and Wimbledon have faltered.

A regally bred son of Unbridled, Eddington impressively won two races at Gulfstream Park before contesting his first stakes, the Gotham, three weeks ago at Aqueduct. The colt was bumped so hard at the break that Edgar Prado, his jockey, nearly fell off. He closed against a strong headwind for third.

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