Shine the searchlight across America for serious Kentucky Derby contenders, and the light stops here.
Five and a half weeks before the nation's greatest horse race, three of the leading Derby hopefuls -- including the co-favorite, Captain Bodgit -- reside in the stalls of Maryland trainers. Until 11 days ago, when the Maryland-bred Smoke Glacken withdrew from Derby contention, four horses with Maryland connections ranked among some observers' Derby top 10.
"I don't think that has ever happened -- not in my time, anyway; not even close," said Maryland trainer Grover G. "Bud" Delp, who trained the last favorite that won the Kentucky Derby, Spectacular Bid in 1979.
"There's been one every now and then; I can't even remember two," Delp said. "But this many? No, sir. This is an extraordinary year for Maryland-based trainers."
It is perhaps most extraordinary for Gary Capuano, 33, the trainer of Captain Bodgit. From the well-known Capuano family that is immersed in Maryland racing, the Bowie-based trainer has never handled a horse as good as Captain Bodgit.
The powerful Florida-bred toppled Pulpit -- the prematurely crowned king of the 3-year-olds -- in the $500,000 Florida Derby on March 15 with the kind of classic late kick that often wins Kentucky Derbys. Capuano next will saddle Captain Bodgit on April 12 in his final Derby prep, the $500,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Park.
But first, in three days, John J. Tammaro III, who has trained horses in Maryland every winter for 20 years, will start Concerto in the $600,000 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
Winner of five of his past six races -- the loss was by less than a length to Captain Bodgit -- Concerto will be the bettors' favorite despite the presence of top horses from California and the rich stables of renowned Triple Crown trainers.
RTC And finally, Traitor, despite a late entry onto the Derby trail, will likely seek his ticket to Louisville alongside Captain Bodgit in the Wood Memorial. Trained by Pimlico-based Mary Eppler, Traitor won his 1997 debut Monday, the non-betting $100,000 Ocala Breeders' Sales Championship Stakes in Florida -- an unorthodox approach to the spring classics, to be sure, but one necessitated by a training accident two months ago at Hialeah Park.
So that's Maryland's first-class contingent, featuring trainers on the verge of their maiden Derby voyage. But what about the perennial D. Wayne Lukas, as flashy this time of year as a window box of pansies? And what about Pulpit, a name familiar to racing fans despite his not racing as a 2-year-old?
Asked for his assessment of the Derby picture, Lukas said: "It's probably as gray as it's ever been. I think there's a lot of sorting out to do. And it might not get sorted out until we actually run
Ah, the wisdom of D. Wayne, whose horses have won an astonishing seven of the past eight Triple Crown races. But this year, "gray" and the need for "sorting out" most accurately describe his own wealthy and wide-ranging stable.
Of the 23 3-year-olds Lukas nominated to the Triple Crown -- 10 more than Richard Mandella and 11 more than Nick Zito -- only one has sizzled at Triple Crown speed: filly Sharp Cat.
She has trounced the best females in California, and Lukas plans on running her against males April 5 in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. That is the path he took in 1988 with Winning Colors, only the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 122 runnings.
"Wayne ain't going to win the Derby with a colt," said Henry Carroll, trainer of Smoke Glacken, whose third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby ended his Kentucky Derby hopes.
Lukas' most accomplished colt, Boston Harbor, fractured his left front cannon bone during a February workout. He'll be sidelined at least four months, ensuring for the 18th consecutive year that the Eclipse Award-winning juvenile male will not win the Kentucky Derby. His injury also extends the jinx on Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners, none of whom has won the roses the first Saturday in May.
Zito's 3-year-olds, normally primed for the classics, have also fared poorly. His first-stringer, Acceptable, ran second to Boston Harbor in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but this year has flopped in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby.
The trainer offered excuses after both races -- a misstep and bleeding, then a breathing problem. Owned by George Steinbrenner (who also owns Concerto), Acceptable must step up to the plate April 12 in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Ky., or face demotion to the minor leagues.
Between them, Zito and Lukas have won the last three Kentucky Derbys. But this year the Derby likely will feature a different face in the winner's circle.
If it's not Capuano, Tammaro or Eppler, it might be Frank Brothers. In 1991, he trained Hansel, the beaten Derby favorite who bounced back to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. This year he trains Pulpit, the Derby co-favorite with Captain Bodgit.
Pulpit was sensational in his first three races, not only winning them by a combined 15 3/4 lengths, but also recording the fastest time at each distance during the Gulfstream Park meet. But then in the Florida Derby, as the 2-5 favorite, he finished second to Captain Bodgit.
With Captain Bodgit scheduled for the Wood Memorial, and Pulpit for the Blue Grass, they will not meet again until the Kentucky Derby.
Then, history will be against Pulpit. Only one horse, Apollo in 1882, has won the Derby after not racing at 2. Pulpit didn't race last year because of a stress fracture in his left foreleg.
"I'm not sure which is the better horse," said Mark Marion, manager of the Kentucky Derby future book at The Orleans hotel and casino in Las Vegas. "They look the best of what I think might be a slightly weak bunch."
He said the best in the West appears to be Hello, an Irish-bred trained by Ron McAnally. But Barry Irwin, a keen observer of horses and president of the California-based Team Valor, which owns Captain Bodgit, said the best is Silver Charm, trained by Bob Baffert.
Said Baffert, who just missed winning the Kentucky Derby last year with Cavonnier: "There's so much parity right now it's like the NCAA basketball tournament. On any given day, any team can win. But when they start stretching out to a mile and an eighth, that's when everything starts getting sorted out."
That's the distance of all the remaining major Derby preps. In the Kentucky Derby, the fast-developing 3-year-olds confront 1 1/4 miles for the first time.
"Until the Blue Grass, Wood, the Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbys, you don't really know," Baffert said. "Those are the races that begin separating the men from the boys."
Pub Date: 3/27/97