It's new age for 3s-to-be

Date changes for two Kentucky Derby prep races cloud the picture for Declan's Moon and his generation in the run-up to the 2005 classic

December 18, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

As soon as Declan's Moon, the undefeated Maryland-bred, crosses the finish line in the Hollywood Futurity today at Hollywood Park, the period of the known will end and the period of the unknown will begin.

The outcome of the Hollywood Futurity, the last major race of the year for 2-year-olds, will settle the question of which juvenile will win the Eclipse Award for 2-year-old male. That much will be known. The unknown is what happens next.

Because of a change in dates of two of the major races leading to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the road to the spring classics next year is fraught with uncertainty.

The Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, traditionally in mid-March, has been moved to April 2. The Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, for the past decade three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, has been moved to April 9, four weeks before the Derby.

One obvious consequence is that with so many major Derby preps grouped so closely together, no Derby prospect will likely run in more than one of the following races: Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby (April 9), Blue Grass Stakes (April 16) and Arkansas Derby (April 16).

"We're going to have some different options than we've had in the past," said trainer Todd Pletcher, whose Limehouse and Pollard's Vision finished fourth and 17th, respectively, in this year's Derby. "The new schedule is probably going to help some races and hurt some others. Some guys might alter course and go off in a different direction."

Officials at Gulfstream Park said they moved the Florida Derby so that horses could springboard from their race directly into the Kentucky Derby. Also, the changed date for the race - while it retains its $1 million purse and Grade I status - ensures that horses will remain longer at Gulfstream in South Florida before heading north.

Officials at Aqueduct said they moved the Wood Memorial because trainers wanted more time between the Wood and the Kentucky Derby. However, the old three-week gap proved adequate for three of the last five Derby winners (Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos and Funny Cide), who prepped in the Wood.

Still, saidPletcher: "We've come to realize that horses perform more consistently well with more time between races. Four weeks is better than three, and sometimes five weeks is better than four."

Three suits John Servis fine. He trained Smarty Jones, winner of this year's Derby and Preakness, and for next year's classics has the unbeaten Rockport Harbor, a striking son of Unbridled's Song who's won four races.

Servis selected the same route for Rockport Harbor as he took with Smarty Jones - via Oaklawn Park, culminating in the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Kentucky classic.

"I just feel those three weeks leading into the Derby sets up a horse perfectly," Servis said.

He said the Arkansas Derby with its timing and $1 million purse might benefit from the schedule changes. Already, the Delaware Park-based Afleet Alex, winner of four of his six races, has joined Rockport Harbor in committing to Oaklawn for preparation.

They are two of the top 2-year-olds as the calendar prepares to flip to Jan. 1 and turn them all into 3-year-olds. However, any one of three racing today in the Hollywood Futurity will catapult to the head of his class with a victory and clinch the Eclipse.

Proud Accolade has won three of four races, including the prestigious Champagne Stakes. Wilko scored a stunning upset in winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after racing 10 times in Great Britain.

But the likely favorite in the Hollywood Futurity is Declan's Moon, who could become the second Maryland-bred voted champion 2-year-old male. Devil's Bag earned the honor in 1983.

Trained by Ron Ellis in California, Declan's Moon is a son of Malibu Moon, who began his stud career at Country Life Farm near Bel Air. Because his first runners performed so well, Malibu Moon was transferred last year to Kentucky.

Brice Ridgely bred Declan's Moon and sold him at Timonium as a yearling for $125,000. He and his wife, Mary Anne, who own Spring Meadow Farm in Howard County, still own Vee Vee Star, the dam of Declan's Moon.

Brice Ridgely said they receive at least one call per day from people wanting to buy Vee Vee Star. He said they turned down $600,000, and that was after Declan's Moon won his second start. He's now 3-for-3 and on the verge of becoming the top 2-year-old and leading contender for the Kentucky Derby.

Noting the origins of the last two Kentucky Derby and Preakness heroes (Smarty Jones in 2004 and Funny Cide in 2003), Ellis said of Declan's Moon: "We had a Pennsylvania-bred this year and a New York-bred the year before. I think it's about time for a Maryland-bred to pop up."

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