04/25/2007 11:00PM

Derby meet begins

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Derby longshot Dominican leaves the track at Churchill Downs on Thursday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For weeks and months, the notion that the 133rd Kentucky Derby is fast approaching has been limited mostly to people talking or writing or blogging.

But with the start of the 2007 spring meet Saturday at Churchill Downs, racing fans will be getting a far more tangible reminder that the Derby is just around the corner - and, indeed, magnified by the sights and sounds of live racing on the grounds, Derby buzz will officially descend upon the land of the Twin Spires. Even the name of the opening-day feature, the Derby Trial, provides a sign that it's that time of year, regardless of whether the Trial long ago became anachronistic.

An 11-race Saturday program, highlighted by the 83rd running of the $100,000 Derby Trial, will launch a 52-day meet which, as always, peaks on the second Saturday with the Kentucky Derby. Since Tim Tam, in 1958, became the last Trial winner to also win the Derby, fewer and fewer horses are actually being wheeled back on such short notice, and this year, any such quick turnaround looks like an impossibility.

Actually, two of the 14 horses entered in the Trial, Bwana Bull and Teuflesberg, are possible Derby starters - but only if they don't run in the Trial.

Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of Bwana Bull, threw a monkey wrench into the Derby works Thursday afternoon when he revealed that Bwana Bull had been treated with antibiotics after incurring superficial scrapes during his cross-country flight from California earlier this week and most likely will be scratched from the Trial. Hollendorfer said that makes Bwana Bull "a possibility" to run in the May 5 Derby.

With $125,000 in, Bwana Bull, owned by the partnership of Mark DeDomenico, Dan Jelladian, and George Todaro, appears to have enough to make the Derby field, based on a system that grants starting berths to the top 20 graded earners if the race is oversubscribed.

"We came there with the intention of running in the Derby Trial," Hollendorfer said by phone from California. "We could run in the Derby, I guess. It's a possibility. He does have enough money, and my owners might want to run. He's probably going to scratch from the Derby Trial. If he does, I would maybe breeze him there on Monday."

Jamie Sanders, trainer of Teuflesberg, has said she will scratch from the Trial once she has been assured a spot in the Derby field, which, as of Thursday afternoon, will occur only if two of the following three are not entered when Derby entries are taken Wednesday morning: Slew's Tizzy, Xchanger, and Bwana Bull. Teuflesberg ranks below those three on the graded-earnings list.

As for Slew's Tizzy, trainer Greg Fox has said he and breeder-owner Joe LaCombe would announce Friday whether they will hold the Lexington Stakes winner out of the Derby. And in the final Derby-domino update, trainer Mark Shuman said Thursday from Maryland that Xchanger is "only about 20 percent" to run, assuming the colt is not sold to new owners. Shuman said he expected to know something definitive by Saturday.

With all those complications to the Derby picture, the Trial, which lost its Grade 3 status several years ago and therefore cannot provide a final push in needed earnings, serves this year as little more than a scene-setter and mood-lifter - although, in a vacuum, it's an awfully good betting race. Discounting Teuflesberg and Bwana Bull, eight of the remaining 12 are either stakes winners or graded stakes placed, a statistic that might ultimately help restore the race's graded status. Bold Start, Out of Gwedda, and Wafi City look like logical favorites in the 7 1/2-furlong Trial.

In any case, the impending start of the Churchill meet and the Bwana Bull situation ranked among the most exciting happenings on a Thursday otherwise void of Derby news.

With a slew of final pre-Derby works still to come over the next few days, perhaps the other most noteworthy development was that Julien Leparoux, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice rider for 2006 and one of the game's bright young stars, was named on his first Derby mount. Trainer Darrin Miller, whose best Derby hope is Blue Grass Stakes winner Dominican, named Leparoux to ride his other runner, the longshot Sedgefield.

"Julien was open, and we needed a rider," said Miller. "He does a good job, and we're excited about getting him."

The naming of Leparoux leaves only Zanjero without a definite riding assignment among the 20 horses who appear likely to make the cut-off on the graded-earnings list, although Shuman also has not named a rider for Xchanger. Trainer Steve Asmussen has declined to commit a rider to Zanjero, pending late developments before entry time Wednesday.

o Asmussen sent Curlin, the probable Derby favorite, to the gate for schooling before the renovation break on a rainy Thursday morning at Churchill. Curlin then galloped 1 1/4 miles over the sloppy track under exercise rider Carmen Rosas.

* As part of its tribute to the late 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Churchill will be selling blue rubber bracelets with the slogan, "Riding With Barbaro" for $2. The bracelets will go on sale at various track locations starting Tuesday, with all proceeds going to the Barbaro Memorial Fund.

- additional reporting by Byron King and Jay Privman