04/25/2006 11:00PM

Against tradition, it's fashionable to be late

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Horsephotos
Barbaro (left), alongside trainer Michael Matz at Keeneland on Wednesday, is one of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There once was a well-worn path to the Kentucky Derby. A horse had to get plenty of experience at 2, have a slight vacation, then prep in several races at 3, culminating in a race like the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes, then head straight to Churchill Downs for as much training as possible over that surface. Get used to the track, get used to the surroundings, get a slice of Derby pie, the thinking went.

That path now contains a few detours. In the past four years, the Derby winner has made his final start in the Illinois Derby, Wood, Arkansas Derby, and Santa Anita Derby. And where it once seemed as though the Santa Anita Derby winner had barely cooled out before getting on a plane to come here for three-plus weeks of training, twice in the last three years the Derby winner has arrived only days before the race.

In both cases, with Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo last year, the trainers who successfully utilized that strategy were running a horse in the Derby for the first time. Barclay Tagg, with Funny Cide, and John Shirreffs, with Giacomo, figured they could get as much done, if not more, at their home base before coming to Kentucky.

"I'd come in the morning of the race in a helicopter if they'd let me," Tagg said Wednesday afternoon from his barn at Belmont Park.

"I like to ship in late wherever I go. A horse either likes the track or he doesn't. And if he doesn't like it, he's going to get sore and achy before the race training on it. That's my theory. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but it works for me."

Horses are shipped frequently for races all over the country, and usually arrive right on top of the race, as seen this spring with the victorious Bob and John in the Wood, Sinister Minister in the Blue Grass, and Sweetnorthernsaint in the Illinois Derby. The Derby had been viewed as somehow different, but that seems to be changing.

Both Tagg, who has Showing Up, and Shirreffs, who has A. P. Warrior, are not sending their Derby runners to Churchill Downs until next week, only days before the 132nd Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs. That's no surprise.

"It makes sense to stay here," Shirreffs said recently at his barn at Hollywood Park. "We have such good weather."

But many other trainers are postponing their visits to Churchill Downs, too. Bob Baffert has won the Derby three times, each with horses who arrived more than three weeks before the Derby and had at least two workouts over the Churchill main track. Yet this year, Baffert is not sending Bob and John nor Point Determined until a little more than a week before the race. Dan Hendricks is utilizing a similar schedule with Brother Derek, the Derby favorite. As of Wednesday, only 12 of the top 20 horses pointing for the Derby - based on graded-stakes earnings - were at Churchill Downs, and two of them just arrived late Tuesday.

Three of the 12 - Bluegrass Cat, Keyed Entry, and Sunriver - are trained by Todd Pletcher.

"Some of it is based on the necessity of the trainer," Pletcher said Wednesday at his Churchill Downs barn. "After the Florida Derby, we come out of Florida and bring a lot of horses to Kentucky for the Keeneland meet. Since I'm here in Kentucky, obviously I want my Derby horses here with me. If you're based in California and you have most of your horses out there and it's easier for you and your staff to train there, I think that has more to do with it."

Lynn Whiting, who won the 1992 Derby with Lil E. Tee, said he believes being at Churchill is important.

"I think it's a plus," he said. "Unless you don't like the scrutiny of the media. Because if you've got something to hide, they're going to find it. Trainers might not want the distractions, but I would prefer to be here."

But Whiting acknowledged, and both Tagg and Pletcher agreed, that the main track at Churchill in the weeks preceding the Derby often bears no resemblance to the surface on race day.

"They pack that track down until it's a brick road," Tagg said. "The Derby's run on a lightning-fast track. I'll probably get in trouble for saying that, but it's the truth."

"A lot of times the track is very different Friday and Saturday as opposed to what you train on," Pletcher said. "You're training on one surface, and you're running on a much tighter, faster surface.

"You ship in right on top of races to other venues all the time," he said. "The principles that you use to train horses, to run in races all over the country, should apply to the Derby. After all, it's still a horse race."

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Brother Derek returned to the track and galloped 1 1/2 miles at Santa Anita, two days after what was, for him, a subpar workout. "He bounced out of the work like it was nothing," Hendricks said. "He had a strong gallop, against the bit the whole way."

* Deputy Glitters, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, worked five furlongs in 1:01.46 over Belmont Park's main track with exercise rider Simon Harris. Belmont clockers caught Deputy Glitters's first quarter in 25.86 seconds, which means he got his final three furlongs in 35.60 seconds. He was caught galloping out in 1:14.04. Daily Racing Form timed Deputy Glitters in 1:01.60, with his final three furlongs in 36 seconds.

"If he had gone just a shade faster it would have been to the letter," said trainer Tom Albertrani, who said he was looking for a time of 1:01. "But the way he finished up was what was important."

* At Hollywood Park, Sacred Light worked seven furlongs in 1:28 with jockey Aaron Gryder for trainer David Hofmans. He is 23rd on the graded stakes earnings list; only the top 20 can run.

* Showing Up returned to the track at Belmont and jogged 1 1/4 miles over the main track. Although Showing Up suffered a puncture wound in his right foreleg when he won the Lexington, he remains on target for the Derby, Tagg said.

"He's feeling good, doing good," he said. "As long as things go well and his leg heals up, I'm going to run him."

* Pletcher has yet to name riders for Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver, and McLaughlin is waiting to see if Flashy Bull gets in before he decides on a rider. "The same jockeys available now will be available next week," said McLaughlin, who said he was "laying back to see if someone comes open." Steve Asmussen is also holding off on naming a rider for Storm Treasure.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, and Mike Welsch