Plot thickens in Churchill mystery

Two withdrawals leave field at 18

mud is likely, obscuring picture further

Kentucky Derby

May 01, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After the topsy-turvy lead-up to the Kentucky Derby today at Churchill Downs, things were going unexpectedly smoothly this final week. Then came yesterday.

Two horses scratched, reducing the field to 18. The forecast for rain solidified, virtually ensuring a muddy track. And most people remained as confused about who would win as they had been all spring.

First, Wimbledon, and then, St Averil, were withdrawn from the Derby. Wimbledon may have been the more significant defection, as it means Jerry Bailey, the country's top jockey, and Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby-winning trainer, will sit out the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Baffert said Wimbledon, winner of the Louisiana Derby, sustained what appears to be a minor injury to his left front ankle. Rafael Becerra, trainer of St Averil, said the California colt's lingering sore front feet remained tender.

That leaves 18 of the fastest 3-year-olds to race 1 1/4 miles - farther than they've ever raced before - in the premier race in this country and one of the most prestigious in the world. The forecast calls for rain and scattered thunderstorms. This could be the first Derby contested in mud in a decade.

Go for Gin won that sloppy 1994 Derby, and Nick Zito trained him. It was Zito's second Derby victory in four years, but he's been shut out since.

He entered 2004 with the strongest Derby hand of any trainer, but his two top contenders stumbled and his third-stringer, The Cliff's Edge, stepped up to carry the load. After winning the Blue Grass Stakes, The Cliff's Edge is the Derby's 4-1 morning-line favorite.

"You need a lot of luck to get into this race," Zito said. "Look what's happened in all these races leading up to the Derby."

It's been a year in which leading Derby contenders faltered as heavy favorites, losing to unknown upstarts. The win payoffs were often staggering: Sinister G $34.80 in the Lane's End Stakes, Castledale $62 in the Santa Anita Derby, Friends Lake $76.80 in the Florida Derby.

Trainers have become so careful not to let their horses peak before the Derby that perhaps soft training has contributed to the odd plethora of upsets. It's hard to tell whether this is a strong or weak group of 3-year-olds.

"It's too early to make that assessment," said John Kimmel, trainer of Friends Lake, winner of the Florida Derby. "Even though it's been a mixed bag going into this race, a horse or two could come to the fore and stamp themselves as really top horses. So many of them look like they could jump up and improve."

Lion Heart, a blazingly fast colt trained by Frenchman Patrick Biancone, might hold the key. It's generally accepted that Lion Heart will go to the lead. What isn't clear is how fast he'll go or how hard horses such as Smarty Jones, Quintons Gold Rush, Pollard's Vision and Read the Footnotes will run to keep up.

"Lion Heart's the horse I'm most concerned about," said John Servis, trainer of the undefeated Smarty Jones. "He could very easily go to the front and control the race."

Winner of all six of his races, the Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones won the race this week for pathos.

Trainer Bob Camac, who arranged Smarty Jones' breeding, was murdered 10 months after the colt was born. Smarty Jones reared in the starting gate last year and smashed his head on an iron bar. He nearly died. And one of his owners, Roy Chapman, 77, is seriously ill with emphysema, but planning to attend the race in a wheelchair.

Whether Smarty Jones can win the Derby is another story. His breeding says he won't last 1 1/4 miles. There were doubts about Secretariat and Seattle Slew, too.

This Derby rates high in human interest, and it doesn't stop with Smarty Jones.

It features a 21-year-old trainer, Kristin Mulhall, who conditions Imperialism. She could become the first woman and youngest trainer to win the Derby.

It features a one-eyed horse, Pollard's Vision, owned by David Moore, who is nearly blind in one eye, and who was named after Red Pollard, the one-eyed jockey of Seabiscuit.

And the face features the dazzling gray Tapit, trained by the unorthodox Michael Dickinson at his Tapeta Farm in Maryland.

This, the 130th Kentucky Derby, is particularly intriguing. Richard Mandella, trainer of two entrants, Action This Day and Minister Eric, said the horses get caught up in the hoopla, too.

"They can tell by the rumbling of the noise. They know something's going on," Mandella said. "I don't know if they know the words to "My Old Kentucky Home," but they're humming it."

Field for 130th Kentucky Derby

No.* PP Horse Trainer Jockey Record Earnings Last race Tom Keyser's comment Odds

1 3 Limehouse Todd Pletcher Jose Santos 9:5-0-3 $575,435 3rd Blue Grass Consistent but ill-suited for Derby's demands 30-1

2 4 Song of the Sword Jennifer Pedersen Norberto Arroyo Jr. 5:3-1-1 $211,100 3rd Lexington Consistent but overmatched vs. top 3-year-olds 30-1

3 5 Lion Heart Patrick Biancone Mike Smith 5:3-2-0 $500,800 2nd Blue Grass Probable pacesetter unlikely to last to wire 10-1

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