At Derby, it's a race to the starting gate

Large group of hopefuls leads to lots of jockeying for positions in the field

Horse Racing

April 26, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The road led to Churchill Downs after all. And you didn't think it would, did you?

Your doubts were understandable.

Whenever Americans tried to focus on their most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, they kept seeing extreme long shots win and respected favorites falter in key preparatory races. You couldn't tell who was coming, who was going or whether any of them deserved a chance to win the coveted rose-adorned blanket the first Saturday in May.

Check your calendar. That Saturday is this Saturday, and not only did enough horses survive the preliminary tests to earn places in the Derby starting gate, but more than can start are also clamoring for berths. The race to get into the race has been fraught with uncertainty and subterfuge.

In addition, Churchill Downs, parts of which are 130 years old, is undergoing a $121 million renovation that has prompted some to dub this the Demolition Derby. Most of the track is being rebuilt, forcing one-year changes in parking, seating and accommodations. A tidied-up construction site will greet visitors to the 130th Kentucky Derby.

For a Derby in which the field and jockey assignments may not be made final until Wednesday at entry time, construction and confusion are appropriate bedfellows. This is one of the most confounding Derbies in memory.

Rick Violette, trainer of Read The Footnotes, said of whichever 20 get in: "I think you can probably make a serious case for half the field. Heck, there will be 20 horses in the gate, and I'll be afraid of 19 of them."

No clear favorite emerged in four months of competition among 3-year-old thoroughbreds whose owners and trainers yearn for Derby glory. Even Smarty Jones, who could become the Derby's first undefeated winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, is suspect because of breeding and the caliber of competition he has thrashed.

Because there's no clear favorite, a bustling herd of seemingly evenly matched steeds is pounding at the gate trying to get in. The Derby is limited to 20 horses. If more enter, then spaces are allotted to those with the most earnings in graded-stakes races.

Until a few days ago, it looked as if 25 might enter. Now it's down to 22. Oddly, the two with the smallest earnings would be among the most likely to win. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, though lightly raced, are potential powerhouses. It will take last-minute withdrawals for them to crack the field.

The owner of Rock Hard Ten, No. 22 on the earnings list with $90,000, agonized over what to do. The dilemma for Ernie Moody, who lives in Las Vegas, was born out of his colt's demotion in the Santa Anita Derby. Rock Hard Ten finished second but was dropped to third for interference. Second money would have secured a Derby spot.

Moody could have run him in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs two days ago in hopes of earning more money. But then he would have to decide whether to run him back a week later in the Derby.

Or, he could have forgotten about the Derby, run him in the Derby Trial and waited for the Preakness. But few can forget about the Derby. So, after entering Rock Hard Ten in the Trial, Moody scratched him, deciding to take his chances on getting into the big race.

Fortunately, Moody wasn't swayed by the lie of the owner of Song of the Sword, perched precariously at No. 20 on the earnings list. Ernie Paragallo told a reporter for the Daily Racing Form that he probably wasn't going to enter Song of the Sword in the Derby.

That was a lie, he acknowledged later; he wanted very much to run his horse in the Derby. He hoped his deception would persuade Rock Hard Ten's owner to scratch him from the Derby Trial. If Rock Hard Ten had won the Trial, then he would have surpassed Song of the Sword in earnings and possibly left Paragallo on the outside looking in.

As it turned out, Rock Hard Ten's owner decided to scratch after hearing that Sinister G, another horse higher on the earnings list, wouldn't enter because of a cough. That was before Moody even learned of Paragallo's lie. Song of the Sword was assured his place in the race.

Eddington, with earnings of $95,000, sits at No. 21, one defection from getting in. Third in the Gotham and third in the Wood, he is so highly regarded that Jerry Bailey, the nation's top jockey, promised to ride him if he made the field. When it looked unlikely that he would, Bailey gave a conditional commitment to trainer Bob Baffert to ride Wimbledon.

Wimbledon won the Louisiana Derby, and Baffert has won the Derby with War Emblem, Real Quiet and Silver Charm. Eddington hasn't won a stakes, and his trainer, Mark Hennig, finished fourth 11 years ago with his lone Derby entrant. Still, if Eddington gets into the race, even at the last second Wednesday when entries are taken, then Baffert will have to find a new jockey - when 19 of the best ones have already been taken.

Yesterday, after Wimbledon breezed five furlongs in the rain, Baffert looked horrified when the question came up.

"Don't even say that," he said. "Don't even mention `new jock.'"

It's been that kind of year. But the road led anyway to an under-construction Churchill Downs. You didn't think it would. You can only wonder what could happen next.

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