Winnowing goes on

Aqueduct's Gotham one of four Derby preps today

Horse Racing


NEW YORK -- Keyed Entry returned from his morning workout at Belmont Park yesterday morning fit and apparently enjoying the cool air and warm sunshine washing over his dark bay coat.

Once in his stall, he ate and acknowledged visitors by letting them pet his nose and rub his chin.

The atmosphere surrounding the fact that he would be saddling up today at Aqueduct Race Track as the early-line second favorite, taking on 10 other horses in the Gotham Stakes - a Grade III, $200,000 prep race for the Kentucky Derby - seemed not to bother the precocious 3-year-old.

"You'd like a victory at the end of the day," said Seth Benzel, assistant trainer for Todd Pletcher, who is in Tampa, Fla., with Bluegrass Cat, another of his Derby hopefuls. "But the ultimate goal is the Kentucky Derby. Along the way, you just hope for a positive, learning experience."

The 1 1/16-mile Gotham is one of four Derby preps today in which as many as 12 top 3-year-olds will take another step toward sorting out their abilities and strengths.

"The whole racing season works like a tournament, just like the NCAA tournament going on now," said Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer, Mike Trombetta. "Every round, the competition gets better and harder."

At Aqueduct, Keyed Entry, Achilles of Troy and Sweetnorthernsaint will attempt to build on resumes that already have drawn notice, while some not so well-known horses such as Eagle Head, owned by Dan Lucas of New Market, Md., will be trying to make a first impact on the public's imagination.

"He ran really well in the two races he ran at Laurel," said Martin Venburg, who trains Eagle Head at Pimlico Race Course. "And he seems to want to go run some longer distances. So we thought we'd bring him to Aqueduct and see if we can improve his form. He's a nice horse and if he does well, we'll just keep on going."

Eagle Head, an early nominee to the Triple Crown Series, has run just two career races. He won for the first time Feb. 8 on the day Pimlico-based horses were allowed back to Laurel Park after the outbreak of the equine herpes virus.

Now, on the first day Maryland horses are being allowed into New York following the virus scare, he will break from the third post and try for his second win.

Achilles of Troy, under the direction of newly named trainer Frank Amonte Jr., has already been tested around two turns. Running on his home track, he's the early-line favorite. The question facing him is what difference stronger competition will make.

Sweetnorthernsaint, meanwhile, was to ship in from Laurel this morning and is third choice in the early line. He has dominated his home-track competition, showing great speed. The questions he must answer are: can he go two turns and is he the real deal when up against better-quality horses?

Keyed Entry is the one horse in the field who has been tested against proven competition, having beaten another potential Derby horse, First Samurai, in a track-record effort in the Hutcheson Stakes last month. But Keyed Entry has to prove he can go long and manage his speed.

"All the horses have been around two turns in their morning work," Benzel said. "But two turns in a race for the first time is a new experience. In a one-turn race, it's more about early speed. Over two turns, you want him to relax over the first half, get set and settled for the majority of the race before putting the kick on and re-engaging."

Not all horses can do it.

Amonte, who has been waiting 30 years for a chance to be a head trainer, knows his horse can go two turns because he has already done it, winning twice. And he also believes the No. 6 spot in the starting gate will give Achilles of Troy an important edge.

"The speedballs, like Sweetnorthernsaint, are going to have to hustle from the outside," Amonte said.

Benzel, however, believes being outside can be a positive.

Keyed Entry will start from the seventh post, which puts him outside Achilles of Troy and inside Sweetnorthernsaint.

"Sweetnorthernsaint and Keyed Entry both like to be close to the pace," Benzel said. "Being on the outside, a horse can gauge his speed off the inside horse. Sweetnorthernsaint is on the outside of us, but we're outside of Achilles of Troy. When you're on the inside like he is, you just need to go [fast] forward."

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