Derby Hopefuls Look To Make Grade

DERBY HOPEFULS LOOK TO MAKE "GRADE"

When 20 horses break from the gate in the May 1 Kentucky Derby, there's a good chance some of the nation's top 3-year-olds will spend "the most exciting two minutes in sports" back at their barns.

Ever since the 23-horse stampede that ran for the roses in 1974, the Derby field has been limited to 20 starters based on purse earnings (though a lawsuit resulted in 21 running in 1981). Since 1986, the standard has been earnings in graded stakes races -- no matter the distance of the race, whether the horse earned the money as a 2-year-old or 3-year-old, and whether the stakes was a Grade 1, 2 or 3.

Last Saturday, in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass over the synthetic Polytrack at Keeneland and the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, three horses that had never been on the Derby radar screen suddenly banked enough to make the 20-horse cutoff. Stately Victor and Paddy O'Prado, the 1-2 finishers in the Blue Grass at 40-1 and 9-2, and Line of David, who won the Arkansas Derby at 17-1, are headed to Churchill Downs.

Three other graded stakes before the Derby -- yesterday's Lexington, won by Exhi, and the Derby Trial and Withers next Saturday -- could vault another couple of horses into the top 20.

The injustice of this is that two colts that deserve to run for the roses might not make the cut, despite racing well in several key Derby preps. Jackson Bend, second this year in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial, is currently 21st on the list, and Setsuko, second in the Sham and Santa Anita Derby, ranks 24th.

"The Derby is part of Americana," said Jackson Bend's Hall-of-Fame trainer, Nick Zito, who has a definite Derby starter in Florida Derby winner Ice Box. "Everybody wants to run in it, and I don't blame them.

"The two horses in the Blue Grass, I wish them the best. On paper, they look like grass horses to me."

In fact, Stately Victor and Paddy O'Prado both made their two prior starts on turf.

"Unfortunately," [graded stakes earnings) is the only way they can do it [limit the field to 20], other than a point system, with some races worth more than others," Zito said.

"I would think that a race like the Wood would be worth more than other races."

Setsuko's rally in the Santa Anita Derby stamped him a solid threat in Kentucky, but he might not even make the trip, said his Hall-of-Fame trainer, Dick Mandella.

"I never thought much about [the earnings] until I was in this situation," Mandella said. "I thought first or second [in the Santa Anita Derby] would get you in, but being superstitious, I didn't do the math.

"Maybe [the current system] needs a bit of fine tuning," he added. "Horses that run in the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood, they've got to be taken a little more serious than other races."

LEXINGTON STAKES

In Lexington, Ky., Exhi held off a late bid from Bushwhacked to pull off an upset in the $300,000 Lexington Stakes yesterday at Keeneland.

The victory gave trainer Todd Pletcher his third straight win in one of the final Kentucky Derby preps, though it's unlikely the 3-year-old colt will run at Churchill Downs in two weeks.

Exhi and jockey Robby Albarado had little trouble getting in front and held on to beat Bushwhacked by three quarters of a length in the 1 1/16th-mile race over Polytrack.

Exhi paid $41.80, $16.80 and $8.60 while winning his second straight start.

Bushwhacked and jockey Rajiv Maragh paid $6.80 and $4.80 for second.

Uptowncharlybrown, who went off as the co-favorite with Connemara, closed for third and paid $4.20.

by Ed Fountaine
from nypost.com

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