04/28/2005 11:00PM

Closing Argument tries to dodge rain

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has spent almost as much time handicapping the weather as he has the field for this year's Kentucky Derby. Intermittent rain in recent days has made it difficult for McLaughlin to decide where and when Closing Argument's all-important final Derby workout will take place.

With rain again in the forecast for Friday, and possibly Saturday, McLaughlin had the option of keeping his horse at Keeneland, where he could work over the all-weather training track, or vanning him to Churchill Downs with the hope that the weather and track will allow him to get a good five-furlong work into Closing Argument.

"He'll gallop at Keeneland Saturday morning and then ship to Churchill at 1 p.m. that afternoon," said McLaughlin. "That gives us the option of either working him there Sunday or Monday, depending upon the track condition."

Closing Argument, who will be McLaughlin's first Derby starter, has had an action-packed 3-year-old campaign for a horse with only two starts under his belt since Dec. 4. A son of Successful Appeal owned by Philip and Marcia Cohen, Closing Argument won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 5, was nearly purchased privately in the weeks following that victory, missed a scheduled start April 2 in the $1 million Florida Derby because of a foot bruise, and then finished third two weeks later in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes.

"He was close to being sold a couple of times," said McLaughlin. "But I'm happy with the way things worked out, because I'm really excited about going to my first Derby and glad I'm able to do it with a horse for the Cohens, who have really supported and been behind me."

McLaughlin is realistic enough not to set his expectations too high with his first Derby starter, who figures to be among the longshots in the race.

"This horse gives 110 percent every time he runs and has never finished worse than third," said McLaughlin. "Realistically I'm hoping he can do that again, hit the board, thinking then if he got lucky and got the right trip maybe he could win. But to be honest, if he just hit the board Saturday I would call it a success."

Juvenile runners part of a Derby first

Since the Breeders' Cup was first run in 1984, the top three finishers in the BC Juvenile have returned the following May to run in the Derby on just three occasions (1984-85, 1994-95, and 1995-96). But for the first time in history, the top four finishers in the Juvenile could be in the starting gate when the Derby is run Saturday.

Wilko, Afleet Alex, Sun King, and Consolidator were the first four finishers in the Juvenile last October at Lone Star Park, and all four are on target for the Derby.

"That's a heck of a thing for the Breeders' Cup," said Nick Zito, trainer of Sun King. "I'm sure they're very proud of that."

Nonetheless, the so-called Breeders' Cup jinx remains firmly in place: No Juvenile winner has won the Derby, while only three Juvenile starters have won it, the latest being 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero.

In another statistical first relating to Derby 131, the top six finishers in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes are running back in the Derby, the first time that has ever happened. Only Mr Sword, the seventh and last finisher in the April 16 Blue Grass, is skipping the Derby.

Day stoic about end of streak

Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, accompanied by Churchill president Steve Sexton, visited the new Joe Hirsch Media Center on the sixth floor Friday afternoon. Day, whose record streak of riding in 21 consecutive Derbies will end Saturday, said he will be back in the saddle as early as May 11. Day recently completed rehabilitation after undergoing hip surgery in late March and was scheduled to begin exercising horses Saturday.

As for his unfamiliar role as Derby spectator, he said, "I'll just walk around and enjoy the festivities. It'll be different, but I'll try to enjoy it as best I can."

Day, whose lone Derby victory came aboard Lil E. Tee in 1992, has ridden in every Derby since 1984. The second-longest streak in Derby history is 16, held jointly by Eddie Arcaro (1944-59) and Bill Shoemaker (1952-67).

- additional reporting by Marty McGee