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Bettors Still Hunting for Kentucky Derby Favorite

16 April 2002

by Ralph Siraco

While taxpayers will be pushing crunch time with a stamped midnight deadline tonight, raceplayers also were hitting a crunch time for a stamp of approval as the deadline approaches for this year's Kentucky Derby.

After the weekend's final trio of major Kentucky Derby prep races, finding even a favorite for the run for the roses on May 4 will be every bit as taxing as balancing the finances on April 15.

Last summer a Bob Baffert trainee named Officer was being pounded in the Kentucky Derby future books while still a juvenile hopeful. But Officer fell from grace after dismal performances in his last pair of juvenile starts -- an unplaced Breeders' Cup Juvenile outing and a runner-up effort in the California Cup Juvenile.

Baffert, who has been part of recent Kentucky Derby terrain with a pair of victories, was out of ammunition when one of his well-heeled clients came to the rescue. Prince Ahmed Salman purchased this year's Illinois Derby winner War Emblem for a hefty seven figures this past week to put Baffert back in the game.

Now, after a cruising victory recently at Santa Anita, Officer will be pointed for the 1 1/16th mile Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 20. And it is conceivable although highly improbable that an Officer victory there could get him back in the -- do we dare say it? -- Derby picture.

Trainer Neil Drysdale has Japanese-bred Sunday Break heading for the Derby after a solid third this weekend. He will also unleash a German-bred named Flying Dash in the Lexington as well. That runner, who will be racing on dirt for the first time, is owned by Fusao Sekiguchi who won the 2000 Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus, also trained by Drysdale.

Saturday featured the "Big Three Pick 3" of prep races that featured at least some of the contenders for this year's Kentucky Derby. To emphasize how wide open and crazy this Derby is, the winner of the slowest of the three prep races was penciled in as the early line favorite for Kentucky at odds of 5 to 1.

That's 5 to 1.

Harlan's Holiday has garnered the role of morning line favorite for the Derby off a solid but pedestrian victory in the 78th running of the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

The middle race of the three-race Big Three series saw the Kenny McPeek trainee roll past Booklet at the top of the homestretch in the 1 1/8-mile feature to register his second consecutive Grade I victory, stopping the clock in 1:51:1.

The Florida Derby winner and partner Edgar Prado will now be looking for a hat trick at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Although Booklet seems to have distance limitations, his connections may take a Derby shot.

The Big Three show opener was the 78th running of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct race track. That Grade I Big Apple event was the final stepping stone of the last two Kentucky Derby winners, Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos. This year, the 1 1/8-mile race highlighted the best of the late bloomers.

Buddha, a son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, was making only his fourth lifetime start. San Felipe Stakes winner Medaglia d'Oro, who had broken his maiden sprinting at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 9 and since was purchased by Edmond Gann, was giving jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. a chance at returning to Kentucky. Hailing from the barn of the hottest trainer in America, Eclipse Award winner Bobby Frankel, Medaglia d'Oro fought Buddha mano-a-mano through the homestretch and provided the most exciting finish of the weekend sophomore races.

Buddha prevailed by a head under jockey Pat Day in the fastest clocking of the weekend in 1:48:3. Along with the top two finishers in the $750,000 New York prep, third place Sunday Break and Saarland, who finished fourth, will move on to Kentucky for the Derby.

The $500,000 Arkansas Derby wound up the Racing Festival of the South at Oaklawn Park and was the anchor race in the Big Three events. The 66th running provided the largest field of the weekend.

The wide open nature of the Derby picture was played out in Hot Springs as Private Emblem overcame the outside post 11 and outran his competition for the Grade II victory. The Steve Asmussen trainee was timed in 1:50:1 for the 1 1/8 mile under jockey Donnie Meche and along with third placed (deadheat) finisher Windward Passage is heading to Louisville.

The weekend's Derby hopeful disappointments included HoldtheHelm, Mr. Mellon, Azillion, Nokoma and Blue Burner. It should be noted that while the California Derby is not a Graded event, the 88th running produced another Kentucky-bound runner. Tracemark, ridden by jockey Jason Lumpkins, who won the 1 1/8th mile Saturday Bay Meadows feature. The winner's share of the $150,000 purse is certain to finance the bluegrass trip.

Louisville here they come. And come and come and ...

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