Saturday, May 1, 2004

This year's Derby is too close to call

Today's 18-horse field without a standout entrant

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Richard Mandella is a Hall of Fame trainer and in the past year has won four Breeders' Cup races and the $6 million Dubai Cup.

Get Kentucky Derby 130 news and information at
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VIP guests moved to infield
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Layoff could be a benefit
Trainer's approach is off the beaten track
Jockeys hopeful of OK to wear corporate logos
Hard times paved their Derby road
The Cliff's Edge made favorite in packed field
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Limited sight doesn't limit horse
Yet the Kentucky Derby eludes him, as it does so many others. Mandella likens the odds of developing a Derby winner to being struck by lightning.

"I went out and bought a lightning rod and am going to put it on my back," Mandella said. "I hope we get some action around here."

He might. Mandella will saddle long shots Action This Day and Minister Eric under a threat of rain.

A muddy Churchill Downs track would make a fitting backdrop for a Derby picture that has been clouded all spring.

Whichever horse goes off as the favorite - probably The Cliff's Edge or Smarty Jones - could be the highest-priced in the race's 130-year history. After moderately long shots Wimbledon and St Averil scratched Friday, 18 horses, 10 of whom have won graded stakes this year, remain. The only consistent horse, unbeaten Smarty Jones, is unproven.

"Normally you can look and throw 10 horses out" as having no chance, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said. "You can't do that this year."

It has become harder than ever simply to reach the race. Though its $1 million-added purse ranks just 58th among the world's races, the event's prestige continues to grow.

Nick Zito, the winning trainer in 1991 and '94, might have thought it easy then. After starting eight horses the next five years and coming up empty, he totaled only one entrant the past four years.

"I didn't realize, waiting two years (since his last entrant), how big it's getting," he said. "Everyone wants to do it, and it's getting more competitive. Just look at the outfits who aren't here."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who started a Derby-record 41 horses the past 23 years and won four times, has no entrants. After losing Wimbledon, two-time winner Bob Baffert will end a streak of eight years with a horse involved. Jerry Bailey, named the nation's top rider the past four years, will sit out for the first time since 1990. Numerous top ownership groups didn't produce a starter.

Zito is the only trainer in the race who has won it. Six of the 15 trainers with horses in the field and five jockeys are in it for the first time.

A look at some story lines:

• John McKee, a 22-year-old from Hamersville, Ohio, will become the first Greater Cincinnatian to ride in the race since Steve Cauthen won in 1978 aboard Affirmed. McKee rides Pro Prado.

• Vying to be the first female trainer to win the Derby, Kristin Mulhall will saddle Imperialism and Jennifer Pedersen will saddle Song of the Sword. Mulhall, at 21, also could break the record for youngest winning trainer that has stood since 1881.

• Shane Sellers took two years off because of a knee injury and had to lose 26 pounds to get back to racing weight. He rides morning-line favorite The Cliff's Edge. Sellers is 0-for-12 in the Derby.

• Eccentric trainer Michael Dickinson, known as racing's "Mad Genius," brought his own sod and Guinness beer for his horse, Tapit, to consume.

• Trainer Beau Greely, a Lexington native and fourth-generation horseman, has in Borrego his family's first Derby horse since 1937.

• Sentimental favorite Smarty Jones survived a near-fatal training accident. With trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott in their first Derby, the horse is trying to become the first undefeated winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. If he wins, a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park would mean a record payday of $5.85 million.

• Bobby Frankel, winner of the last four Eclipse Awards, will saddle Master David in an effort to win his first Derby. He was second and third last year with Empire Maker and Peace Rules, respectively.

• Master David and Castledale each will try to become the first Derby winner to have started his career in Europe.

• Not since 1956 has a horse won whose last prep came more than a month earlier. Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes haven't raced in seven weeks, Birdstone in six.

• Funny Cide last year was the first New York-bred to win; Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes also were bred there. Just one winner, Lil E. Tee in 1992, was bred in Pennsylvania - where Smarty Jones was bred.

• Pollard's Vision is blind in one eye, and Impeachment has impaired vision in an eye.

Schmidt's Picks

This is the ninth year Enquirer reporter Neil Schmidt has covered the Kentucky Derby. Here are his picks for this year's race:

Master DavidLion HeartThe Cliff's Edge

Dark horse: Borrego

Derby facts

When: 6:04 p.m. today

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

TV: Ch. 5, 22

Field: 18 3-year-olds

Distance: 1 1/4 miles

Favorite: The Cliff's Edge, 4-1

Total purse: $1,154,800

Winner's share: $854,800

Forecast: Scattered thundershowers

2003 winner: Funny Cide



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