09/18/2002 11:00PM

Derby dozen spells trouble

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - There is bound to be trouble when 12 3-year-olds get together Saturday at Hastings in the $200,000 Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile British Columbia Derby.

It won't be quite as crowded as when 20-plus horses run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but 12 horses on a track that is just over five furlongs in circumference usually means that at least a couple of horses will have their trips compromised. You have to go back only two weeks to see what happened to odds-on favorite Lady Shari in the British Columbia Oaks. She was body-slammed into the rail approaching the five-furlong pole, and there were only 10 fillies in the Oaks.

If Salt Grinder - owned by Homestretch Farm, a group headed by his trainer, Jim Penney - breaks alertly, he won't have to worry about what's happening with the rest of the field, because he will be in front. In his only start at Hastings he set extremely fast fractions going 6 1/2 furlongs and never looked threatened on his way to a 2 3/4-length victory over Commodore Craig in the Klondike Stakes on June 2. It was questionable that a horse as quick as Salt Grinder would be able to carry his speed a middle distance, let alone the B.C. Derby distance of nine furlongs.

His impressive win in the 1 1/16-mile Washington Owners Handicap at Emerald, in 1:40.60, answered his critics, and according to Kay Cooper, assistant to Penney, he can be forgiven for his disappointing race in the Emerald Downs Breeders' Cup Derby on Sept. 2.

"He really wasn't a 100 percent going into the Emerald Derby and we couldn't train him the way you would want going into a big race," said Cooper. "Plus the 1:08 and change for the six furlongs didn't help. But he worked super at Emerald last Friday, and he couldn't be doing any better now."

"Super" might be an understatement, since the six-furlong move in 1:09.20 seconds was listed as breezing. "He was well within himself," said Cooper.

Salt Grinder appears to be a much more settled horse than the one who won the Klondike. He tracked Flying Notes for the first half-mile in his win in the Washington Owners Handicap and Cooper doesn't think that he needs to be in front. "He can rate, and with 12 horses in the field, if another horse really wants the lead he can let them go."

Salt Grinder will be ridden by Chris Loseth, the all-time leading stakes-winning rider at Hastings, and with his aggressive style it is pretty likely that Salt Grinder will be near the lead.

Silver Donn is also coming up to the race in excellent shape. In a six-furlong workout at Hastings Tuesday, he went the last three furlongs in 35 seconds and change for a final clocking of 1:13.20 over a track rated good. Silver Donn had a four-race winning streak snapped with a nose loss to Shacane in the Richmond Derby Trial, but his owner, Jim Morgan, rates that race as his best. "He rapped his ankle going into the race, and we could only work him a half-mile before the race," said Morgan. "He was probably a bit short, so for him to run the way he did was pretty amazing to me."

Silver Donn carried 123 pounds in the Derby Trial and all starters in the derby carry 124. "He's only picking up one pound, and he's a big, strong horse, while Shacane carried 117 pounds when he beat us, so he's picking up a lot of weight," Morgan said. "Plus we got the 5-hole and Shacane drew outside."

Silver Donn has helped lift Morgan's spirits over a difficult year. His wife, Vivian, who is part-owner of Silver Donn, had a brain aneurysm in April. She has been making steady progress, but she won't be able to make it to the derby on Saturday.

"Physically she's doing great, but she still gets a bit confused at times. She's in a rehab hospital in Victoria, and my son will take her to a teletheater over there to see the race. She's doing great, but, according to the doctors, it will be a few more months before she makes a full recovery."

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