Needles did

can Barbaro?

'56 Derby winner was last to emerge from a five-week layoff


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- It seemed appropriate that moments before Lael Stable's Barbaro ran his unbeaten streak to five Saturday with a victory in the Florida Derby, the families of 1956 Kentucky Derby winner Needles were honored in the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park.

Needles is the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five weeks or longer. Now, a half-century later, Barbaro becomes the latest colt to try to pull off the feat.

There is no denying Barbaro's quality. After winning his first three starts across the turf and then winning the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 4 across a sloppy track, Barbaro earned a hard-fought, half-length victory over Sharp Humor in the Florida Derby off an eight-week layoff while racing for the first time across a fast track.

Barbaro's schedule, according to trainer Michael Matz, was worked out with assistant trainer Peter Brette and breeders and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson before the son of Dynaformer raced in the Holy Bull. The idea, Matz has reiterated, is to have a fresh horse come the May 6 Kentucky Derby.

"I want to make sure if we get to the Kentucky Derby that we would have a good chance," Matz said. "I don't want to go there and say, `Oh, well, we have an entry for the Kentucky Derby.' That's no fun."

Matz sees no problem with the five weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. But history says otherwise. Last year's Florida Derby winner, High Fly, and runner-up Noble Causeway finished 10th and 14th, respectively, in Kentucky off a five-week layoff. In 2004, Florida Derby winner Friends Lake finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby off a seven-week layoff.

Many trainers believe a horse needs a race within a month of the Kentucky Derby. John Ward, who has John Oxley's Strong Contender stabled at Gulfstream, will wait to run in the April 15 Blue Grass Stakes. Trainers based in Florida never had to deal with a five-week layoff running up to the Kentucky Derby because the Florida Derby was run in the middle of March before last year, when Gulfstream changed its stakes schedule.

"I don't really don't see that big a deal of it," Matz said. "The five weeks should be no problem."

Todd Pletcher, who could saddle as many as five horses in the Kentucky Derby, including Sunriver, who finished third in the Florida Derby, said he wouldn't hesitate running a horse in the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff.

"I have no problem with 35 days," Pletcher said yesterday. "Statistically, for our barn, that time frame works well, and I don't see why it wouldn't apply to the [Kentucky Derby]. I think it's one of those things that's been overrated. Statistically, it hasn't stacked up well [going into the Kentucky Derby] because no one does it. Up until last year's [Florida] Derby, there hadn't been a major race run [five weeks out]. The way I look at it, the Derby is a hard race to win no matter what you do. There's so many variables involved."

The way Matz sees it, "We should have a fresh horse. Everybody makes a big deal out of it [five weeks out], but I don't think it's a big deal for this horse."

It wasn't for Needles.

Dave Joseph writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Triple Crown rankings

Horse Trainer Jockey St W P S Last race Next race

1. Lawyer Ron Bob Holthus John McKee 13 6 1 3 Rebel (1st) Arkansas Derby (4/15)

2. Brother Derek Dan Hendricks Alex Solis 7 5 0 1 Santa Catalina (1st) Santa Anita Derby (Sat.)

3. Barbaro Michael Matz Edgar Prado 4 4 0 0 Florida Derby (1st) Kentucky Derby (5/6)

4. First Samurai Frank Brothers Edgar Prado 7 5 1 1 Fountain of Youth (1st) Blue Grass (4/15)

5. A.P. Warrior John Shirreffs Corey Nakatani 7 3 1 0 San Felipe (1st) Santa Anita Derby (Sat.)

6. Bluegrass Cat Todd Pletcher John Velasquez 6 4 1 0 Tampa Bay Derby (2nd) Blue Grass (4/15)

7. Sharp Humor Dale Romans Mark Guidry 7 4 1 1 Florida Derby (2nd) Kentucky Derby (5/6)

8. Point Determined Bob Baffert Garrett Gomez 5 2 2 1 San Felipe (2nd) Santa Anita Derby (Sat.)

9. Cause to Believe Jerry Hollendorfer Russell Baze 9 6 3 0 California Derby (1st) Illinois Derby (Sat.)

10. Strong Contender John Ward Edgar Prado 2 2 0 0 Allowance (GP) (1st) Blue Grass (4/15)

Triple Crown panel: John Cherwa, Orlando Sentinel; Dave Joseph, South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Bob Mieszerski, Los Angeles Times; Neil Milbert, Chicago Tribune; Paul Moran, Newsday.

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