The field for the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday is holding firm at 15 starters, the smallest group to compete in the race since a similar-sized field faced Sunday Silence and Easy Goer at Churchill Downs in 1989.
But the race is loaded with eight jockeys, four trainers and two owners seeking repeat wins in what has been called America's most exciting two minutes in sports.
Some trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas expected even fewer horses, given the presence of heavily favored Holy Bull and nearly a half-dozen California invaders -- Brocco, Strodes Creek, Valiant Nature, Soul Of The Matter and the Lukas-trained Tabasco Cat -- who boast strong credentials.
"I thought it would be less than that  because it's such a quality bunch and it would eliminate pretenders," Lukas said. "I thought it would be something like 12."
The only surprise entrant, which would add a 16th starter, could be the undefeated Seattle Slew filly, Lakeway.
The horse's trainer, Gary Jones, downplayed that possibility yesterday.
"I'm pretty sure we're going in the [Kentucky] Oaks," Jones said. "It's really a decision for the owner [Mike Rutherford] to make.
But I'd say the only way we'd go in
the Derby is if Holy Bull ships to Yakima for the Yakima Derby and Brocco goes to Thistledown."
Those two minor tracks are located in Washington state and Ohio, respectively.
Kent Desormeaux, leading jockey at the recently concluded Santa Anita meet, will ride Lakeway in the Oaks on Friday as well as Soul Of The Matter in the Kentucky Derby.
Desormeaux has ridden in the Derby three times but has yet to win. He finished 16th in 1988 on Purdue King, third on Pleasant Tap in 1990 and fifth last year aboard Diazo.
Desormeaux was scheduled to start a five-day suspension Wednesday that would have precluded his riding in the two big Kentucky races. But he received a court stay and will be allowed to compete.
The Desormeaux suspension resulted from his ride on The Wicked North in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 5. The horse won the race, but was disqualified from first to fourth by the Santa Anita stewards for interfence with fourth-place finisher Myrakalu at the top of the stretch.
Phil and Sophie Hersh, owners of The Wicked North, appealed the stewards' decision to the California Horse Racing Board, which rejected their plea last Thursday as well as an appeal from Desormeaux to overturn his suspension. Both matters could now be heard in civil court.
All of the 15 probable Derby starters are now stabled on the grounds of the Louisville, Ky., track.
Most of them have completed their serious training, although a half-dozen horses, including Holy Bull, are scheduled to work five furlongs or farther this morning.
Holy Bull will have Bobby Perna, his regular exercise rider, aboard when he breezes six furlongs today. Valiant Nature also is scheduled to work six furlongs. Brocco, Strodes Creek and long shots Mahogany Hall and Ulises are set to go five furlongs.
Riders have been named for each entrant and include eight previous Derby winners. They are:
* Chris Antley, who won in 1991 on Strike the Gold. He rides long shot Powis Castle.
* Jerry Bailey, winner last year on Sea Hero, has the mount on Arkansas Derby runner-up Blumin Affair.
* Pat Day, who finally rode a Derby winner in 1992 on Lil E. Tee in his 10th try, rides Tabasco Cat.
* Eddie Delahoussaye, who won the Derby in 1982 and 1983 with Gato Del Sol and Sunny's Halo, respectively, replaces Corey Black on Strodes Creek.
* Chris McCarron, winner in 1987 with Alysheba, has been named to ride Go For Gin. Bailey had been riding the horse, but opted instead for Blumin Affair.
* Craig Perret, who won on Unbridled in 1990, will ride Kandaly, the Louisiana Derby winner.
* Laffit Pincay Jr. rides in his 19th Derby, on Valiant Nature. He won in 1984 with Swale.
Holy Bull's jockey, Mike Smith, won the Eclipse Award in 1993 as the country's top rider, but has never won the Derby. He finished second last year with Prairie Bayou.
Previous winning Derby trainers with horses in this year's race include Charlie Whittingham, who won in 1986 with Ferdinand and 1989 with Sunday Silence; Lukas, trainer of 1988 winner Winning Colors; Jack Van Berg, who saddled 1987 winner Alysheba, and Nick Zito, trainer of Strike the Gold, the 1991 Derby winner.
Only two owners of the expected 15 starters have won the Derby. They are William Condren and Joe Cornacchia, owners of Strike the Gold, who are trying for a second Derby victory with Go For Gin. Arthur Hancock, part-owner of Strodes Creek, also owned part of Sunday Silence, the 1989 winner.
Horse, Trainer, Jockey
Holy Bull, Jimmy Croll, Mike Smith
Brocco, Randy Winick, Gary Stevens
Strodes Creek, C. Whittingham, Ed Delahoussaye
Valiant Nature, Ron McAnally, Laffit Pincay Jr.
Tabasco Cat, D. Wayne Lukas, Pat Day
Soul Of The Matter, Dick Mandella, Kent Desormeaux
Blumin Affair, Jack Van Berg, Jerry Bailey
Go For Gin, Nick Zito, Chris McCarron
Kandaly, Louie Roussel III, Craig Perret
Southern Rhythm, Jim Keefer, Garrett Gomez
Meadow Flight, Jim Ryerson, Shane Sellers
Powis Castle, Rodney Rash, Chris Antley
Mahogany Hall, Jim Baker, Wilfredo Martinez
Smilin Singin Sam, Niall O'Callaghan, Larry Melancon
Ulises, Alfredo Callejas, Jorge Chavez