04/21/2004 11:00PM

Derby scramble greets new meet

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Rock Hard Ten soaks up the ambience of Churchill Downs and its famous twin spires.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby is a delightful mess. Churchill Downs is a masterpiece-in-progress mess. And the weather is creating a wet mess.

Funny, but racing fans think it's all pretty neat.

A 53-day spring meet begins Saturday at Churchill, where the prospective field for the 130th Derby on May 1 is wonderfully scrambled, and a facility that fairly begged for a bulldozer is now in the final year of a $121 million overhaul. The result is a one-of-a-kind spring meet, one in which record-high odds for the Derby favorite seem likely, and one that will have patrons on the lookout for new comfort zones amid unfamiliar surroundings.

While this transition from old to new has brought a slew of major changes, there still remains a core of tradition that makes Churchill Downs a special place. They'll still mix ice and bourbon to make mint juleps, and the world famous twin spires have been spared the wrecking ball, but, perhaps above all, there is this: full fields of world-class racehorses, which is the most a dedicated horseplayer dares to ask for.

"We think this is going to be a fantastic meet," said Churchill racing secretary Doug Bredar. "The Derby itself is going to be an incredible betting race, which we hope will set the tone for the whole meet. Everyone is excited with the renovations with the eye toward the future."

As usual, the highlight of opening day is the $100,000 , a race that long has been a misnomer but tends to attract substantial interest nonetheless. Rock Hard Ten, with Pat Day named to ride, is the obvious favorite among the six 3-year-olds entered in the one-mile Trial, but therein lies a catch: Trainer Jason Orman has reserved the right to scratch Rock Hard Ten if he reasons that there is a chance the colt will be able to crack the lineup for the Derby next Saturday. As of Thursday, Rock Hard Ten was 24th on the graded-earnings list and only the top 20 will be eligible to enter the Derby.

If Rock Hard Ten remains in the Grade 3 Trial, he clearly will be the horse to beat, having run three terrific races in California to start his career. If Rock Hard Ten doesn't run, the favorite's role most likely would go to Bwana Charlie, winner of the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland in his last start. Shane Sellers, a three-time leading rider at Churchill, has the mount on Bwana Charlie.

The other scheduled starters in the Trial are Quick Action, Sir Shackleton, Honolua Storm, and Courageous Act. Of those, Courageous Act, trained by Bob Baffert, probably rates best after rallying to win the San Pedro at Santa Anita four weeks ago.

The Trial is the first of 33 stakes at a spring meet in which purses are expected to average nearly $450,000 per day and total stakes purses will exceed $7 million. Fourteen of those stakes will be run next week, after which the post-Derby segment of the meet begins.

To their credit, Churchill officials have done well in crafting another notable racing day during what formerly had been a vacuous span. Stephen Foster Day, set this year for June 12, now includes six stakes, led by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap for older horses.

Meanwhile, the battle for top trainer at the spring meet should be very interesting. Dale Romans has been the dominant figure recently, having won or tied for the last four spring meet titles, but Steve Asmussen, who has Bwana Charlie and another 200-plus horses stabled among several facilities, could pose a major threat this year. Asmussen has built a national powerhouse barn in recent years, and has said he intends to be a major player here this spring.

As for opening weekend, the weather forecast is calling for more of the rain that has fallen here in recent days. Off-and-on rain that began here Tuesday is supposed to continue straight through the weekend. High temperatures are forecast for the low 70's.

* TVG is the lone television outlet that will be covering the Derby Trial, although fans can get into a Derby mood by watching the one-hour Triple Crown Special program Saturday on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Trial is 4:45 p.m.

Monday is the lone dark day here before Derby Day. After the Derby, Churchill will be dark for three consecutive days with racing resuming on May 5.