Derby enthusiasm unfazed by heavy rain

By ROBERT KIECKHEFER  |  May 2, 2002 at 4:48 PM
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LOUISVILLE, Ky., May 2 (UPI) -- With two days to go before the 128th running of the Kentucky Derby, not even a pouring rain could dampen the enthusiasm in the Churchill Downs stable area on Thursday.

"It doesn't matter to me what his odds are," said Ken McPeek, the trainer of 9-5 morning-line favorite Harlan's Holiday. "I know he is going to run well."

Many of the trainers, owners and jockeys in the full, 20-horse Derby field expressed similar optimism. The race this year shapes up as one of the most wide open in recent Derby history as none of the 3-year-olds has stepped up to show dominating form.

Harlan's Holiday is the favorite because he won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, then came to Kentucky to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in his last two starts. He has gotten better as the distances have increased, adding to the optimism over the 1 1/4 mile of the Kentucky Derby.

McPeek said jockey Edgar Prado picked the No. 14 post position -- last spot in the main gate -- for Harlan's Holiday. "If he's happy (with the gate), I'm happy," McPeek said.

Listed as co-second choices by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia are Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home and Wood Memorial winner Buddha. Came Home has won six of his seven starts. Buddha is a lightly raced late bloomer. Their trainers were equally optimistic with 48 hours to go before the Run for the Roses.

"The horse is doing great," said Buddha's trainer, H. James Bond. "Now if we can only keep the trainer calm, we'll be all right." Bond, a highly accomplished trainer, is saddling his first Kentucky Derby starter.

Came Home galloped Thursday and trainer Paco Gonzales continued the optimistic theme. "He's still pulling hard in the morning and wants to go," he said.

Jockey Chris McCarron said all the main speed appears to be inside Came Home's No. 15 post position. "So I should be able to see what's developing early and go from there," he said.

Good vibes extended to the Godolphin Racing camp, which hasn't had much luck so far in its quest to win America's most famous race. The Dubai-based contingent this year pins its hopes on Essence of Dubai, a son of the young sire Pulpit and winner of the UAE Derby in his last start.

"He is training at the top of his game and that is always a good sign," said Tom Albertrani, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "His only bad race was in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year and I think we can throw that out and give him another chance."

The two European challengers -- last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg and stablemate Castle Gandolfo -- cleared quarantine Wednesday night at Keeneland in nearby Lexington, Ky. They walked the course Thursday morning at Keeneland, will gallop on Friday and will be vanned to Churchill Downs on Derby Day morning.

Trainer Aidan O'Brien, who handles both colts from the Ballydoyle training center in Ireland, is less likely to show up in Louisville. He is suffering from the flu and his doctors have advised against the trans-Atlantic flight.

Other comments as trainers mulled their Kentucky Derby chances:

--Bobby Frankel (Medaglia d'Oro): "He's doing great. Real great." But Frankel confessed the colt coughed several times earlier in the week before coming around. "The main thing is the horse is just fine," he added.

--Steve Asmussen (Private Emblem): "This horse just has so much confidence now that it makes me confident that he's going to run well Saturday."

--D. Wayne Lukas (Proud Citizen): "I watched him graze this morning and he looks great."

--Murray Johnson (Perfect Drift): He was very sharp this morning. On his toes."

Friday's Kentucky Oaks -- the filly equivalent of the Kentucky Derby -- has drawn a field of 10, with Take Charge Lady expected to be the heavy favorite.

Take Charge Lady galloped this morning just before heavy rains hit Churchill Downs and McPeek, who hopes to complete the Oaks-Derby double with her and Harlan's Holiday, said that will be her last exercise before the race.

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