With one of his horses scratched and a leading jockey apparently expressing doubt over another one, trainer Woody Stephens' chances of winning the Kentucky Derby for the third time appear to be diminishing.
Digress, the least regarded of Stephens' three Derby prospects, is not running today at Keeneland in the $250,000 Blue Grass Stakes, which despite a mediocre field is still considered the last major prep for the Derby.
And Pat Day, a 3-time winner of the Eclipse Award that goes to the country's top jockey, is not only riding Regal Classic, the 6-5 Blue Grass favorite, he's also saying that he might stick with the Canadian colt rather than ride Stephens' Forty Niner in the Derby. Day, who has never won a Derby, has ridden Forty Niner, last year's champion 2-year-old colt and once the future-book favorite to win the Derby, to a win and a second-place finish in two stakes at Keeneland this month.
Stephens, who won the Derby with Cannonade in 1974 and Swale in 1984, has another candidate this year in Cefis, who'll run in the 1-mile Derby Trial on Saturday at Churchill Downs, where the 114th Derby will be run a week later. Cefis, winner of only 2 of 13 starts, won the Tampa Bay Derby in Florida March 20, but none of the eight horses he beat has been good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Both Forty Niner and Digress are owned by Claiborne Farm, the nursery in nearby Paris, Ky., that bred and raced Swale.
Seth Hancock, the president of Claiborne, said recently that Forty Niner wouldn't run in the Derby if Day didn't ride him. That seems to be one of those retractable statements, though, since there are still several prominent jockeys without Derby mounts.
Digress would have been the second betting choice in a Blue Grass that is probably the weakest in the 64-year history of the race. Except for Jim Day with Regal Classic, the other trainers are running in the 1 1/8-mile stake because they are looking for a reason--any reason--to come back in the Derby. The field has a composite record of 26 wins in 84 races and none of the nine 3-year-olds has won a major stake in the United States.
"We shipped Digress up from Florida (after the Tropical Park Derby), but he really hasn't picked up his head since he got here," Hancock said. "He has worked well, but we just didn't think he was ready to give 100%."
Stephens said that Digress had a low blood count which indicated that he wasn't 100%.
Hancock said that Digress would be sent to New York, where he will probably run in the Peter Pan at Belmont Park May 29.
Unraced until April 2, Five Star Camp won his debut, came back eight days later to win at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct and drew the rail, with jockey Russell Baze, for the Blue Grass.
Outside them, in order, are Intensive Command and Julio Pezua; Drouilly's Boy, Frank Olivares; What a Diplomat, Gary Stevens; Cougarized, Craig Perret; Regal Classic, Day; Delightful Doctor, Richard Migliore; Buoy, Keith Allen; and Granacus, Jacinto Vasquez. All will carry 121 pounds, 5 less than Derby weight.
Regal Classic won four straight stakes in Canada last year before running second to Success Express in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park and finishing third behind Tejano and Purdue King in the Hollywood Futurity. Slowed by a virus in Florida, Regal Classic was ridden by Angel Cordero in his only race as a 3-year-old, running second in a 1 1/16-mile grass race here two weeks ago.
The only time Pat Day--no relation to the trainer--rode Regal Classic was in the Hollywood Futurity. "The horse had run a temperature early that week, so he might not have been at his best." If Day is leaning toward either Regal Classic or Forty Niner, he is not tipping his hand. While Stephens is asking himself whether Forty Niner has enough stamina to handle the 1-mile Derby, Day hopes that the harder running surface at Churchill Downs will suit the colt better than the deep, loose soil here.
Forty Niner had the lead at the top of the stretch in the Lexington Stakes April 16, then lost by a neck to Risen Star.