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Prep Results Make Kentucky Derby Look Wide Open

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 124th Kentucky Derby has all the trappings of a handicappers’ nightmare. A reasonably sized field, by Derby standards, is in the offing, but with all the major preps having been run, there’s no clear-cut favorite even though Churchill Downs will be visited by two undefeated colts and a mixed bag of stakes winners.

The problem in assessing this year’s Derby prospects is that there are virtually no throw-out horses. Every prep race seems to expose chinks in someone’s armor, while introducing a new serious shooter. This is a crop of 3-year-olds that is either deeply talented or mutually mediocre. Says Gary Stevens, the jockey who has won the Derby three times, including last year with Silver Charm: “When I’m asked to evaluate a group of Triple Crown horses as a whole, I always say: ‘See me five years after they’ve run.”’

Either Lil’s Lad or the previously undefeated Favorite Trick could have gone into the May 2 Derby as the favorite with wins Saturday, but both horses were beaten despite being heavily favored. Lil’s Lad ran second to the late-running Halory Hunter in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, while Favorite Trick was a close third as the previously undistinguished Victory Gallop won the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

“They both had the same problems,” said Pat Day, who rode Favorite Trick. “Too much speed too early.”

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Despite the bubble popping on Favorite Trick, the 1997 horse of the year, trainer Bill Mott shipped the colt to Churchill Downs on Sunday with the intention of running him in the Derby. Day will continue to ride Favorite Trick, as he has in all of his 10 races, but in measured tones Mott suggested that his ride Saturday could have been better.

"[The Arkansas Derby] was uncharacteristic of both Pat and the horse,” Mott said. “I think that if Pat had to do it again, he would have taken hold of his horse when they went past the wire the first time. But he was already committed by then and the decision was made in the first eighth of a mile. I don’t know that what happened had anything to do with the horse.”

What happened was that Favorite Trick found himself in a blistering speed duel with Battle Royale, a 131-1 shot who had never run in a stake. Favorite Trick ran a dull final three furlongs in about 39 seconds and lost by two heads as Victory Gallop prevailed in a three-way finish that also included Hanuman Highway.

The first three finishers at Oaklawn are headed for the Derby, as are the first three--Halory Hunter, Lil’s Lad and Cape Town--from the Blue Grass. But there was an anomaly at Aqueduct, where Coronado’s Quest won the Wood: This New York fixture may not have a representative in the Derby for the first time since 1960. Coronado’s Quest, finally at peace with himself after some hairy antics before his races in Florida, is still a danger to come unhinged before a crowd well over 100,000 in Louisville. Trainer Shug McGaughey might run the colt in the Preakness, the middle leg of the Triple Crown, at Pimlico on May 16.

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With a couple of preps remaining next Sunday--the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the Lone Star Derby at Lone Star Park--Churchill Downs is looking at a field of between 12 and 16 horses for the Derby. Last year there were 13 starters, the smallest turnout since 1985.

This year’s favorite may be either Indian Charlie, the undefeated winner of the Santa Anita Derby, or Halory Hunter, whose come-from-behind style might work in a relatively small field. Event Of The Year, who has a four-race unbeaten string like Indian Charlie’s, will be overlooked by many bettors because he’s skipped all of the major Derby preps.

No matter who’s favored, the odds should be 3-1 or higher. Not being favored has been a godsend in the last 18 Derbies; the most recent favorite to win was Spectacular Bid in 1979.

“It’s a wide-open Derby,” Mott said. “Nobody’s really risen above the crowd.”

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It’s difficult to win a Derby with a California-bred--there have only been three and Decidedly was the last, in 1962--and it’s unusual for a trainer to win successive Derbies, but Bob Baffert will try to pull off this parlay with Indian Charlie.

Baffert, who trains Silver Charm, could have three starters this year: Indian Charlie and Real Quiet are definite, and Shot Of Gold might join the group with a good showing in the Lone Star Derby. Five trainers have won back-to-back Derbies, the most recent Wayne Lukas with Thunder Gulch and Grindstone in 1995-96.

Stevens must decide whether to ride Indian Charlie for Baffert or Halory Hunter for Nick Zito, who has won two Derbies in the 1990s.

It’s another tough decision, not unlike the one Stevens made last month when both Silver Charm and Gentlemen were headed for the Santa Anita Handicap. Stevens stayed with Silver Charm, who was then scratched because of a minor foot bruise. Gentlemen ran last in the Big ‘Cap with Day and three weeks later Stevens enjoyed a $240,000 payday when Silver Charm won the $4-million Dubai World Cup.

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Stevens rides in Southern California, where Baffert trains many of the best horses; the guess here is that Stevens will stick with Indian Charlie and Baffert in the Derby.

Rarer than a California-bred winning the Derby is a female trainer taking home the roses. In fact, a woman has never saddled the winner, out of seven tries by six trainers. Kathy Walsh, who will run Hanuman Highway, is the first woman trainer to try the Derby since Shelley Riley’s second-place finish with Casual Lies in 1992.

Walsh, 58, has been training on her own for almost 30 years after learning the game from her father and the legendary Buster Millerick, who “was like a grandfather to me,” she said. Hanuman Highway, who was 27-1 in the Arkansas Derby and will go off at higher odds at Churchill Downs, was loaded on a van headed for Kentucky on Sunday morning.

Seeing him off, Walsh said: “He’s still very young and green, but he’s come a long way since I got him on Jan. 20. One of the reasons we left California is that it cost us $8,000 to ship here. It would have cost us $35,000 [including a $20,000 supplementary fee] to run at Santa Anita. Was I shocked [to finish second]? I didn’t come here to be shocked.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Kentucky Derby Prospects

Two unbeatens head an unpredictable field of stakes winners

HORSE: Artax

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TRAINER: Randy Bradshaw

JOCKEY: Chris McCarron

LAST RACE: 3rd, Santa Anita Derby

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HORSE: Cape Town

TRAINER: Wayne Lukas

JOCKEY: Shane Sellers

LAST RACE: 3rd, Blue Grass

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HORSE: Chilito

TRAINER: Graham Motion

JOCKEY: Gary Boulinger

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LAST RACE: 1st, Flamingo

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HORSE: Comic Strip

TRAINER: Neil Howard

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JOCKEY: Shane Sellers

LAST RACE: 3rd, Flamingo

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HORSE: Event Of The Year

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TRAINER: Jerry Hollendorfer

JOCKEY: Russell Baze

LAST RACE: 1st, Jim Beam

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HORSE: Favorite Trick

TRAINER: Bill Mott

JOCKEY: Pat Day

LAST RACE: 3rd, Arkansas Derby

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HORSE: Halory Hunter

TRAINER: Nick Zito

JOCKEY: Gary Stevens

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LAST RACE: 1st, Blue Grass

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HORSE: Hanuman Highway

TRAINER: Kathy Walsh

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JOCKEY: David Flores

LAST RACE: 2nd, Arkansas Derby

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HORSE: Indian Charlie

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TRAINER: Bob Baffert

JOCKEY: Gary Stevens

LAST RACE: 1st, Santa Anita Derby

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HORSE: Lil’s Lad

TRAINER: Neil Howard

JOCKEY: Jerry Bailey

LAST RACE: 2nd, Blue Grass

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HORSE: Old Trieste

TRAINER: Mike Puype

JOCKEY: Chris McCarron

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LAST RACE: 1st, Santa Anita race

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HORSE: Real Quiet

TRAINER: Bob Baffert

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JOCKEY: Kent Desormeaux

LAST RACE: 2nd, Santa Anita Derby

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HORSE: Shot Of Gold

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TRAINER: Bob Baffert

JOCKEY: Kent Desormeaux

LAST RACE: 1st, Rushaway

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HORSE: Victory Gallop

TRAINER: Elliott Walden

JOCKEY: Alex Solis

LAST RACE: 1st, Arkansas Derby

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HORSE: Yarrow Brae

TRAINER: Wayne Lukas

JOCKEY: Willie Martinez

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LAST RACE: 2nd, Jim Beam


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