04/19/2007 11:00PM

Derby depth dwindling at O'Neill barn


LEXINGTON, Ky. - It has been a cold last month for trainer Doug O'Neill, so he was more than happy to escape the morning chill in the stands at Keeneland on Friday and head to the warmth of the press box, where he sat alongside the clockers while putting several of his horses, including two prospects for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, through their drills.

In mid-March, O'Neill was running neck and neck with trainer Todd Pletcher for deepest Derby contingent. Cobalt Blue had just won the San Felipe Stakes, Great Hunter had returned with a victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes, Notional was coming off a win in the Risen Star Stakes, and Liquidity was one race removed from a runner-up finish in the Sham Stakes.

Since then, Cobalt Blue finished seventh as the favorite in the Illinois Derby, Great Hunter was fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes, Notional suffered a leg fracture that required surgery, and Liquidity finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, the second straight race in which he finished out of the money.

"It's been a little frustrating," O'Neill said between works Friday morning, "but at the same time, it's very gratifying to even be in this position."

With Notional out, O'Neill is down to three Derby contenders, two of whom - Cobalt Blue and Liquidity - worked under exercise rider Tony Romero on Keeneland's Polytrack surface Friday morning.

They worked alone, about 20 minutes apart, and Liquidity was the superior of the two, not only in terms of raw time, but how he looked. Liquidity rolled along in 1:11.40 for six furlongs and galloped out well. Cobalt Blue, who had to be whipped a quarter-mile into his drill, was timed in 1:01.80 for five furlongs.

Back at the barn after the works, Liquidity was the far fresher of the two, while Cobalt Blue needed repeated visits to a water bucket to quench his thirst.

Liquidity has been an enigma for O'Neill. He is convinced Liquidity has more talent than he has shown in his last couple of starts. In an attempt to get it out of him, O'Neill is removing blinkers for the Derby, and adding a Sure-Win bridle, which helps keep a bit firmly in place in a horse's mouth. Liquidity worked without blinkers and with the Sure-Win on Friday.

"When you keep his head in the bridle, he's fine, but in his last couple of races, when you turn him loose, he goes into neutral," O'Neill said of Liquidity. "This keeps the bit up in his mouth, as if the rider is restraining him. And with the blinkers off, he should be a little less aggressive early on."

O'Neill said he is treating Cobalt Blue's Illinois Derby as a throw-out. "He was on the road, on a winterized track," O'Neill said.

It was, however, the first time Cobalt Blue shipped out of town for a race.

The past month, O'Neill said, "makes you maybe less, I don't know if confident is the right word, but less cocky."

O'Neill said Cobalt Blue and Liquidity, as well as Great Hunter - who ran last Saturday in the Blue Grass - would have their final Derby works next Friday at Keeneland. They then would head to Churchill Downs on Sunday, April 29, for a week of routine galloping up to the Derby.

In other Derby developments:

* Despite a series of races that seemingly took him out of consideration for the Derby, Imawildandcrazyguy is still possible for the race, trainer Bill Kaplan said Friday. Imawildandcrazyguy was sixth in the Florida Derby in his last start, which followed a fourth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.

"I spoke with the owners and they said if he can get in they want to run, but we won't make any definite decision until after we see what happens on Saturday and where we stand on the graded earnings list," Kaplan said.

Imawildandcrazyguy has $104,000 in graded stakes earnings, which put him 21st on the list prior to the running of the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland. His inclusion affects the likes of Florida Derby third-place finisher Chelokee, who has $100,000 in earnings. Reporting for Duty, the Illinois Derby runner-up, also has $100,000 in graded earnings.

Xchanger, 14th on the list, is the horse currently in the top 20 who is considered most likely to defect by Derby Day. He was scheduled to run on Saturday in the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico.

If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races.

* At Hollywood Park on Friday morning, Stormello worked one mile in 1:39 for Bill Currin, his trainer and co-owner. Stormello was fourth in the Florida Derby in his last start.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch