04/16/2008 11:00PM

Derby hopefuls take final shot

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Racecar Rhapsody will try to prove he is Derby worthy in the Lexington.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Saying "I don't know if we'd go" before the race is one thing. Saying it amid a euphoric winner's circle celebration is quite another.

This same scene has been played out year after year with the Coolmore Lexington Stakes. Beforehand, horsemen tend to be nonchalant about whether winning the Lexington would mean going on to the Kentucky Derby, but afterward, in the flush of victory, they rarely have the will to resist temptation.

Seven of the last nine winners of the Lexington have wheeled back two weeks later in the Derby, and although trainers of some of the contenders in the $325,000 Lexington - to be run Saturday at Keeneland for the 27th time - are acting as if it doesn't much matter that a Derby berth is on the line, the truth is, it does. With a winner's share of $201,500, making the 20-horse Derby cutoff is assured, and rare are the owners and trainers who can pass up such a golden opportunity.

Ken McPeek, who has trained top Derby contenders such as Tejano Run (second in 1995) and Harlan's Holiday (seventh as the favorite in 2002), will saddle Racecar Rhapsody as one of the favorites in a field of 11 entered in the Grade 2 Lexington. Rhetorically, McPeek asked and answered: "If he wins, will we go to the Derby? I don't know." Realistically, can anyone imagine Jerry Carroll, the colt's fun-loving, thrill-seeking, bet-crunching co-owner, calmly saying, "Naaaw, no thanks," in the post-race delirium at Keeneland?

Racecar Rhapsody, a promising 2-year-old whose early-season progress was delayed by a minor ankle injury, finished fourth in his lone start of the year, the March 22 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. McPeek believes the colt has benefited greatly from the race and that now is the time to prove whether he is Derby-worthy.

"If he can't win the Lexington, he doesn't deserve to be in the Derby," he said flatly.

The Lexington, run at 1 1/16 miles over Polytrack, is the final major prep for the 134th Derby, for which more than 20 horses are highly likely to enter. One Lexington starter, Salute the Sarge, already has sufficient graded earnings to make the May 3 Derby, and another, Tomcito, surely would make it by finishing second, maybe even third. One more, Atoned, likely would be on the bubble by running second, which is worth $65,000.

Graded earnings are the criteria used when there are more than 20 entries in the Derby. In the last three years that horses have been excluded - 2004, 2006, and 2007 - the earnings threshold has averaged about $106,000, but this year the cutoff point appears to be far higher, at around $200,000.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won the Lexington four times, including with three horses who needed the earnings to make it to the Derby through the back door. One of those, Charismatic (1999), is the only Lexington winner to win the Derby. Lukas is trying to do it again this year with longshot Red Sandy, whose owner, the Shortleaf Stable of John Ed Anthony, paid a $16,250 supplementary fee to get into the Lexington.

The pace of the Lexington shapes up as honest to fast, with Samba Rooster or St. Joe likely to set solid fractions. Starters with close- to mid-range tracking ability include Atoned, Salute the Sarge, Behindatthebar, and Riley Tucker, while Racecar Rhapsody and Tomcito look like they will have to charge from well behind to prevail.

The Lexington, the ninth of 10 Keeneland races, will be televised live on a one-hour ESPN2 show that starts at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Lexington is 5:40 p.m. The show also will include a replay of the Tesio Stakes from Pimlico.

Weather in Lexington was ideal Thursday, but the Saturday forecast calls for showers and a high of only 58.

In other Derby Doings:

* Trainer Todd Pletcher has named Ramon Dominguez to ride Monba, the Blue Grass Stakes winner, in the Derby. Dominguez replaces Edgar Prado, who on Wednesday picked Adriano, the Lane's End winner, over Monba.

Meanwhile, trainer Barclay Tagg said Eibar Coa will get the Derby mount on Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, who breezed four furlongs Thursday at Keeneland in 49.20 seconds. Coa also replaces Prado, who had turned down the mount days earlier. Coa had been the regular rider of Big Truck, who despite finishing 11th last week in the Blue Grass will continue to be pointed to the Derby, said Tagg, with Javier Castellano picking up the mount.

* Three Derby hopefuls were out for serious workouts Thursday morning at Churchill Downs. Court Vision, with Neil Poznansky aboard, breezed a half-mile in 46.20 seconds, and his Bill Mott-trained stablemate Z Humor went the same distance later in the morning, finishing in 47.60 seconds under Rene Douglas. Also, Illinois Derby winner Recapturetheglory had his first work since moving to Churchill when going five furlongs in 1:01 under assistant trainer Lara Van Deren.

* Proud Spell has been added to the Kentucky Derby graded earnings list as "she is nominated, and she is under consideration" for the race, according to a spokesperson for Brereton Jones., who bred and owns the daughter of Proud Citizen. Proud Spell has $880,000 in graded earnings.

* The Tesio typically serves as a possible prep for the Preakness, not the Derby, and that looks like the case again this year. Eight are entered in the 1 1/8-mile race.