Wilko's luck on upswing with Dettori set to ride

Standout Italian jockey lifts Santa Anita hopes

April 09, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - By the time trainer Craig Dollase decided that Wilko was healthy enough to run in the Santa Anita Derby, the colt's jockey, Corey Nakatani, had committed to riding the filly Sweet Catomine.

Dollase wasn't sure where to turn. Then, out of the blue, came a call from Europe. It was Frankie Dettori, that continent's most famous jockey, offering his services to ride Wilko in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby today at Santa Anita Park.

Dettori rode Wilko in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, when, after 10 races in Europe on turf, Wilko shocked the best of the American 2-year-olds by winning at odds of 28-1.

Since then, in two races in California, Wilko has failed to win while battling foot problems. With those problems apparently behind him and Dettori back aboard, Wilko might have the best chance of upsetting Sweet Catomine in California's signature prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Asked about Dettori's initiative to regain the mount, Dollase said: "It made me feel really good. He hasn't given up on this horse."

And neither has Dollase, the 34-year-old son of trainer Wally Dollase.

"This is a little bulldog of a horse," Craig Dollase said. "He's got a heart as big as this racetrack. He puts his life on the line every time he runs."

Wilko remained in the United States after the Breeders' Cup because J. Paul Reddam, who lives in California, bought 75 percent interest in the colt from his European owner. Reddam turned Wilko, a son of Awesome Again, over to Dollase in hopes of gaining a Kentucky Derby horse.

But first, Wilko's new overseers ran him in the Hollywood Futurity in December at Hollywood Park. While training for the race, the chestnut colt suffered a cracked left front hoof.

His connections raced him anyway, knowing that a victory would probably clinch an Eclipse Award. Wilko finished third.

With the hoof apparently healed, Wilko made his 3-year-old debut here last month in the San Felipe Stakes. On a hard, packed-down, wet track, Wilko finished fourth.

He emerged with a cracked right-front hoof. Treated and patched, it has healed sufficiently to toss Wilko back into the Kentucky Derby mix, Dollase said.

"We're just looking for a good effort," Dollase said. "If he can run first or second, I'll be happy. I'm obviously focused on the next dance."

The next dance, of course, is the Kentucky Derby. No Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has won the classic at Churchill Downs. And if Wilko makes the big dance, then he probably won't have Dettori as his partner.

Dettori is the main rider for the Dubai-based Godolphin stable. He is committed to riding Blues and Royals in the Kentucky Derby. Blues and Royals, surprise winner of the UAE Derby, is Godolphin's lone Derby contender.

For now, Dettori's focus is Wilko and the Santa Anita Derby. The 34-year-old Italian star said he hopes the colt can duplicate his Breeders' Cup performance.

"I hope he's gotten over his injuries," Dettori said. "He's a very tough horse. He should run a big race."

Dettori, 34, said this is something of a homecoming for him. He spent four winters at Santa Anita Park - when he was 16, 17, 18 and 19 - polishing his riding skills. He is the son of Gianfranco Dettori, 13-time Italian riding champion.

"It's nice to be back," Dettori said. "I used to smuggle myself into these stables. I used to hide underneath cars and dress up like a Mexican just to get into these stables to ride around the track. Now, I'm here to ride the [Santa Anita] Derby. It's great how things change."

In addition to Sweet Catomine, the accomplished filly making her first start against males, Wilko will face Don't Get Mad and eight others in the Grade I stakes. Sweet Catomine is the 7-5 morning-line favorite, followed by Don't Get Mad at 7-2 and Wilko at 9-2.

Ron Ellis, trainer of Don't Get Mad, figured on being in the Santa Anita Derby with Declan's Moon, the undefeated Maryland-bred, but when Declan's Moon sustained a leg injury, Ellis activated Plan B.

A son of Stephen Got Even, Don't Get Mad has yet to win a stakes race, but his closing kick makes him an intriguing horse in this 1 1/8 -mile race. He finished third in his last race, the San Felipe Stakes.

"That track was hard as a rock," Ellis said. "I don't think he appreciated a concrete racetrack. I think the horse was smart enough to protect himself. He kind of took himself out of the race. He's ready to run now."

NOTE: The Santa Anita Derby is one of three stakes for 3-year-olds that will be televised on NBC in a two-hour broadcast beginning at 4 p.m. The Wood Memorial Stakes and Illinois Derby are the others.

Santa Anita Derby

Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.

When: Today

Post time: 5:43 p.m.

Purse: $750,000

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Grade: I

TV: 4 p.m.-6 p.m., Ch. 11

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