Derby's march to May off, running

Winnowing process gets under way

many eyes on `Moon' in 3-year-old debut

Horse Racing

March 04, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - There's a point every year when the focus sharpens and the eyes fix upon those significant races that produce the meaningful horses who will strive to make history on the first Saturday in May.

"We're coming up on it. We sure are," D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of four Kentucky Derby winners, said yesterday. "We're going to sort the pretenders from the contenders, and quickly now."

This weekend unleashes a flurry of March races from coast to coast that will showcase every major contender for the Kentucky Derby.

Racing fans will get their first look at horses who, when they were 2, signaled with flashy flourishes that they might be special at 3, when the Triple Crown series materializes on the calendar.

Tomorrow, here at Santa Anita Park, Declan's Moon, the undefeated Maryland-bred, makes his 3-year-old debut in the Santa Catalina Stakes.

He'll establish whether his No. 1 ranking the first Saturday in March is based solely upon accomplishment or upon a richer blend of accomplishment and potential.

A son of Malibu Moon and the Maryland mare Vee Vee Star, Declan's Moon led the class of 2-year-olds last year by winning all four of his races and capturing the Eclipse Award as outstanding 2-year-old male. This will be his fifth straight race in California, but first since Dec. 18.

"Right now, he's the defending champion, so we'll give him that," Lukas said of Declan's Moon. "It's his coming-out party. Obviously, he's a talented horse. But if he outruns Going Wild, then he'll rest well that night."

Lukas trains Going Wild, a son of Golden Missile who's won three races in a row, including the Sham Stakes here Feb. 5. This will be Going Wild's third race of the year. That played a major role in the track line for the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina. Declan's Moon is the 7-5 morning-line favorite, but Going Wild breathes down his neck at 9-5.

"My horse has already run at a mile and an eighth," Lukas said. "And we're in top form. Not the form I hope to get May 7, but at this time, on March 5, I'm perfectly comfortable where I am with Going Wild. I may have an excuse after the race. I don't have any going in - none."

Also tomorrow, at Gulfstream Park in South Florida, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, traditionally the first major test for 3-year-olds in the East, as well as the Swale Stakes, a surprisingly intriguing race this year, will feature horses trying to break free of the logjam of the promising but unproven.

Lost in the Fog, who won his first three races by an average of nine lengths, headlines the seven-furlong Swale and is 4-5 in the morning line. He may be the star of the day, and he's not even nominated to the Triple Crown. Greg Gilchrist, his trainer, said that if Lost in the Fog dominates again in the Swale, then he would likely be nominated and pointed to the Florida Derby.

Eleven horses will contest the Fountain of Youth, being run at 1 1/8 miles for the first time. Making his first start for two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito and being ridden for the first time by Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, High Fly is the 5-2 favorite.

Indicative of the 3-year-old picture two months before the Kentucky Derby, a horse who's won only a maiden and an allowance, albeit impressively, is the 4-1 second choice. That horse is Bandini, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, both of whom won their first Eclipse Awards last year.

Defer, who won the Laurel Futurity last fall and then fizzled in his 3-year-old opener, will try to regain his footing in the Fountain of Youth. The Shug McGaughey trainee is 6-1.

Especially interesting this year is that top Derby prospects are scattered around the country. Three leading contenders took up residence at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, as Smarty Jones did a year ago: Afleet Alex, Greater Good and Rockport Harbor.

In a surprise announcement yesterday, Tim Ritchey, trainer of Afleet Alex, who began his career last summer at Delaware Park, said the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up would make his 3-year-old debut tomorrow in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes, a $50,000 race usually of little note on the Derby trail.

Road to the Kentucky Derby

The major prep races for the May 7 Kentucky Derby:

Date Race Track

March 5 Santa Catalina Stakes Santa Anita Park (Calif.)

March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes Gulfstream Park (Fla.)

March 12 Louisiana Derby Fair Grounds (La.)

March 19 San Felipe Stakes Santa Anita Park (Calif.)

March 19 Gotham Stakes Aqueduct (N.Y.)

March 19 Tampa Bay Derby Tampa Bay Downs (Fla.)

March 19 Rebel Stakes Oaklawn Park (Ark.)

March 26 Lane's End Stakes Turfway Park (Ky.)

April 2 Florida Derby Gulfstream Park (Fla.)

April 9 Santa Anita Derby Santa Anita Park (Calif.)

April 9 Wood Memorial Stakes Aqueduct (N.Y.)

April 9 Illinois Derby Hawthorne (Ill.)

April 16 Arkansas Derby Oaklawn Park (Ark.)

April 16 Blue Grass Stakes Keeneland (Ky.)

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