04/15/2010 11:00PM

A battle on the bubble

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Bob Coglianese
Ice Box (outside) beat Pleasant Prince by a nose in the March 20 Florida Derby. Ice Box earned $450,000 for the win; Pleasant Prince earned $150,000 and will probably not qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

Wesley Ward has never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but that prospect seemed ever closer after Pleasant Prince finished second four weeks ago in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. In addition to running well in one of the elite prep races for the May 1 Kentucky Derby, Pleasant Prince had $162,500 in graded stakes earnings, usually enough to make the 20-horse field.

Over the next few weeks, though, horses leapfrogged past Pleasant Prince, so much so that Ward, the jockey turned trainer, and owner Ken Ramsey decided they had to run in the Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday to try to put more cash in the till. It didn't work - Pleasant Prince struggled on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland and finished seventh in the field of nine earning just another $3,750.

Unless there is an unexpected rash of defections from the prospective Derby field before entries are taken April 28, Pleasant Prince is out.

And he's not alone. If entries were taken for the Derby today, the second-place finishers in the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby (Setsuko), and Del Mar Futurity (Make Music for Me) would all be out. In the case of Pleasant Prince, though, the difference came down to a matter of inches.

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In the Florida Derby, Ice Box beat Pleasant Prince by a nose. The difference in prize money between first and second was pivotal: $450,000 and $150,000. Had the photo gone the other way, Pleasant Prince would be in the Derby, and Ice Box would be out. Count Nick Zito, the trainer of Ice Box, as both lucky and blessed.

"After the Florida Derby, I had a meeting with Mr. Ramsey, and we planned to train Pleasant Prince to the Kentucky Derby and gamble he would get in," Ward said this week. "But as the Derby preps unfolded, and horses jumped ahead of us, we had to do something.

"Mr. Ramsey lives in Kentucky," Ward said. "He's all about the Derby. We didn't want to risk missing out with a horse who could not only be a Derby runner, but a Derby winner. He had shown an affinity for Keeneland in the mornings. When he breezed six days before the race, the track was cold and tight. But on the day of the Blue Grass, it was 80 degrees, and the track was sticky. He's a big, muscle-bound horse, and he had different action over it. He could not handle a deep track."

Ward said he and Ramsey at least have the solace of not having to wonder what might have been. Had they sat out the Blue Grass and watched a 40-1 shot win it, there might have been some serious second-guessing.

"If we had not run, there probably would have been a rift between us," Ward said. "We might have said, 'A 40-1 shot won the race, and we cost ourselves a chance at being in the Derby by not being in it.' At least now we know.

"What we wanted to do was train him into the Derby," he said. "He'd have had six weeks, and he would have run his ass off, and Mr. Ramsey would have had as good a chance as anyone if Eskendereya stubs his toe. It's very frustrating. But what are you going to do?"

What to do? If you are Alexis Barba, the trainer of Make Music for Me, try to view the glass as half full. Make Music for Me was the runner-up in last year's Del Mar Futurity to Lookin At Lucky and was third in the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park behind Lookin At Lucky and Noble's Promise. He went into the year with $215,000 in graded earnings, which seemed a safe zone. But after winning the ungraded Pasadena Stakes, Make Music for Me also ran in the Blue Grass and finished sixth, beaten a neck for fifth.

The difference in prize money between fifth and sixth, $18,750, kept Make Music for Me behind Jackson Bend and Backtalk on the earnings list and might very well cost him a chance at running in the Derby.

"We always felt comfortable with the horse, but this year, there's so many horses over the $200,000 point," said Barba, who, like Ward, has never had a starter in the Kentucky Derby. "It's disappointing. Very disappointing. I mean, if you ever wanted to be fifth in a race, that was it. We want to be in the Derby. He's run some good races against some good horses. We're not doing this just because we want to run in the Derby. He belongs.

"But it's not a completely lost situation," he said. "We know he likes turf, and there's the American Turf for him the day before the Derby at Churchill Downs. I'm trying to look at it in a positive way."

In other Derby developments:

* A field of 12 was entered in the Grade 2, $300,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday. The winner of the race will earn $180,000, which, depending on how much graded cash the horse has going into the race, could be enough to crack the top 20 and earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.

WHO'S HOT

Line of David and Stately Victor, the upset winners of the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass last Saturday, are two of the four newcomers to this week's top 20 of Derby Watch. Line of David is 20-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Stately Victor is 30-1 on Watchmaker's line. The other two additions to the top 20 are Homeboykris and Paddy O'Prado, both of whom are 50-1 on Watchmaker's line. Both made the list strictly because they have enough graded stakes earnings to make the likely 20-horse Derby field. Watchmaker also made Eskendereya an even more solid Derby favorite, lowering him to 9-5 after having him at 5-2 last week.

WHO'S NOT

Aikenite, Jackson Bend, Make Music for Me, and Odysseus were removed from the top 20. Aikenite was taken out of Derby consideration following an eighth-place finish in the Blue Grass, and Odysseus emerged from the Blue Grass with a knee chip, though he was ruled out of the Derby even before that injury was discovered. Jackson Bend and Make Music for Me were removed because they do not have enough graded stakes earnings to make the Derby field, though that could change if horses such as Noble's Promise or Interactif end up defecting. Noble's Promise, fifth in the Arkansas Derby, is 20-1 on Watchmaker's line after being 12-1 a week ago.

ON THE BUBBLE

Check the , because that's the order in which horses will make it onto Derby Watch should there be any defections from the top 20.