The spotlight illuminating the Kentucky Derby trail shines this weekend on California.
That's good for Easterners, who don't often see the West Coast's top 3-year-olds until they step up, seemingly out of nowhere, and deliver a kick in the rear every now and then on the first Saturday in May.
Last year, the first four finishers in the Kentucky Derby had raced in California. This year, if a West Coast runner is to win the roses May 3, he -- or she -- likely will be among the expected 10 starters today in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.
ABC will televise the race during a show beginning at 5: 30 p.m. Rest assured that one of the first words out of the broadcasters' mouths will be "filly."
That's because Sharp Cat, a 3-year-old filly trained by D. Wayne Lukas, has emerged as a West Coast starlet. She has won seven of 10 starts, including an incredible four Grade I stakes.
Those victories have been against fillies. Observers of California racing -- Bob Baffert, the trainer, and Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor -- say that the 3-year-old filly division in the West is weak. But Lukas, who knows a thing or two about fillies, says a phenomenal horse makes the opposition look weak.
In 1988, Lukas followed this same route with Winning Colors. After dominating males in the Santa Anita Derby, Winning Colors became only the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
Surprisingly, Sharp Cat is Lukas' best hope for another Triple Crown victory. He has won seven of the last eight Triple Crown events, including the past two Kentucky Derbys.
After predicting last year that this would be his greatest team of ++ 3-year-olds, he has watched his colts one after the other suffer injuries or disappoint at the races.
His top colt, Boston Harbor, fractured his left front cannon bone during a workout. Then Mud Route, trained by Ron McAnally, suffered a shin injury that cost him a run for the roses. Mud Route was California's version of Pulpit, the promising colt that emerged this winter in Florida.
On the West Coast, injuries left the 3-year-old picture muddled.
"I think Silver Charm is their last gasp," said Irwin, whose California-based Team Valor owns Captain Bodgit, the Derby favorite trained by Gary Capuano at the Bowie Training Center.
Conditioned by the white-haired Baffert, Silver Charm finished second March 16 in his first race farther than seven furlongs, the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. He closed strongly, setting him up for the 1 1/8 -mile Santa Anita Derby, Baffert said.
Free House won the San Felipe at 10-1 odds for his third victory in eight tries. Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, he will be among the favorites tomorrow looking for a trip east to Louisville.
And so, too, will Hello.
After Mud Route went down, the crafty McAnally jumped back onto the Derby bandwagon with Hello, an Irish-bred colt so small he can hardly see over the webbing of his stall, the trainer jokes. After seven races on turf in Europe, Hello won two straight in California and then, in the San Rafael Stakes on March 2, broke through the starting gate and still managed a fast-closing third.
Other starters today with Derby aspirations are Bagshot (trained by Paco Gonzalez, who also trains Free House) and P. T. Indy (one of several Derby hopefuls trained by Richard Mandella).
Last weekend Ordway, who finished third as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, resurfaced in the Derby hunt with a powerful late rush for second in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. His final Derby test will be April 12 in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct against Captain Bodgit and Traitor, the Mary Eppler-trained colt stabled at Pimlico.
Also, the Nick Zito-trained pair, Jack Flash and Shammy Davis, ++ regained stature, finishing second and third, respectively, in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park.
Now Jack Flash will race in the one-mile Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on April 26, just one week before the Kentucky Derby, and Shammy Davis likely will start in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 20 -- curious steppingstones to North America's greatest race.
Pub Date: 4/05/97