04/21/2004 12:00AM

Driver, follow that horse

Tapit is presented to about 40 members of the media at his Maryland training base on Wednesday morning.

NORTH EAST, Md. - Some trainers watch their horses work out from the grandstand. Others prefer to view a breeze from the back of a stable pony. There's only one who would do it from the backseat of a sports utility vehicle, traveling in tandem with the horse at roughly 30 miles per hour.

Michael Dickinson's unorthodox methods were on display once again Wednesday at his 200-acre Tapeta Farm on the north end of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, where Tapit put in his next-to-last workout for next week's Kentucky Derby.

With Dickinson keeping a close eye on the proceedings, Tapit worked five furlongs in 1:00.60 over a grass course that has varying degrees of incline. Jockey Ramon Dominguez, who is 2 for 2 on Tapit and who will ride him in the Derby, was aboard for the move.

The work was conducted before approximately 40 media members on what was dubbed "Press Day for Tapit." Tapit started four lengths behind three allowance horses - two who went in tandem and one who sat behind in third. Dominguez had a snug hold of Tapit, who broke off about four lengths behind the tandem, before asking Tapit on the right-handed bend turning for home.

Tapit changed leads on cue and moved easily past his workmates in the final furlong of the move. Then came the only anxious moment of the morning. There were several television and still photographers waiting for Tapit at the finish. Sitting in the backseat with a couple of reporters while his assistant Joan Wakefield drove, Dickinson screamed, "Oh, no, they're too [bleeping] close," referring to the photographers.

At that moment, Dominguez pulled out the whip from his back pocket in anticipation of any sudden move Tapit might make. But, Tapit stayed focused on his task and completed the move without incident.

"That should get him used to looking at a crowd," Dickinson said.

Said Dominguez: "A furlong before I got to all the reporters he kind of looked at them, but he never stopped running at all, never overreacted by any means. I thought he handled it very well."

Dickinson immediately hopped out of the SUV to see how hard Tapit was breathing afterward. Before the move, Dickinson said he didn't want him to blow much, and he wasn't.

Dickinson said he chose to work Tapit on the turf because it "is a safer surface. He's done a lot on dirt. The turf strengthens the ligaments in a horse where the dirt breaks them down. I alternate all my horses - turf and dirt."

Tapit appears to have come out of his Wood Memorial win in excellent shape. His gray coat looked healthy and seemingly had more dapples than it did in the Wood.

After the work, Dr. Kathleen Anderson performed an endoscopic examination and said Tapit scoped clean. Tapit had a significant lung infection coming out of the Florida Derby - where he finished sixth - and also had some mucus in his lungs after the Wood, Anderson said.

"He came out of the Wood better than he went into it," she said. "His breeze was very good. He scoped well. If he's going in the right direction, he's doing it right now, which is what you want."

Speaking to the assembled media before the breeze, Dickinson asked himself if the horse could win the Kentucky Derby.

"He's got be healthy, fit, and sound going into the race," Dickinson said. "You're going to have to ask me the day before the race because he could be fit, sound and healthy today, but that may not be the case next week.

"Is he the best horse?" Dickinson asked. "He's one of the best. We still have a lot to prove. His last race was a good race though the time came up slow. He has to improve - we hope he will. He's well bred, good-looking. We've never seen Tapit at his best. We don't know what his best is."

Dickinson said Tapit would work over Tapeta's all-weather surface on Monday and then ship by van to Churchill Downs on Tuesday.

Read the Footnotes works swiftly

Two months ago, Read the Footnotes was the Derby favorite. He has not raced since his loss in the Florida Derby, and thus has received scant attention. But he has continued to train strongly, and on Wednesday sped five furlongs in 59.60 seconds with exercise rider Morna McDowell at the Palm Meadows training facility in South Florida.

The time was the best of the day at the distance. More significant, according to trainer Rick Violette Jr., was the way Read the Footnotes accomplished the drill. Violette said he clocked Read the Footnotes going his first three furlongs at 12.20 seconds per furlong, with a final quarter-mile in 23 seconds.

"It was amazingly good," Violette said. "He was just awesome. Morna just chirped to him, and he was on his way."

Violette is convinced Read the Footnotes can be a serious factor in the Derby despite not having raced in seven weeks.

"He ran the fastest race of any 3-year-old off the layoff," Violette said, referring to his victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, "so there's no reason he can't do that again. He doesn't need two-turn experience. He had two-turn races last year and this year. The seven weeks is not an intimidating component. The other 19 horses are."

Read the Footnotes is scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Friday, and he is scheduled for a half-mile workout at Churchill Downs on Monday. "He can go 47 seconds or 51," Violette said. "It doesn't matter. His serious preparation is done."

Violette said Read the Footnotes has had no problems since the Florida Derby.

"The last four weeks have been especially glitch-free," Violette said. "Everything I've wanted to do, I've done. He's ready to roll. He's approaching this race the way he did the Fountain of Youth. If he runs the kind of race he did in the Fountain of Youth and he gets a trip, he can win."

Violette was particularly satisfied that he has kept Read the Footnotes in Florida until now, rather than shipping early to Churchill Downs, where it was raining on Wednesday.

"It's been great training weather here," Violette said. "The fact it's raining at Churchill is just another reason to believe staying here this long was the right decision."

* Trainer Jason Orman said that Rock Hard Ten would be entered in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Derby Trial Stakes. Rock Hard Ten currently is too far down the graded stakes earnings list to make the Kentucky Derby field. Asked if Rock Hard Ten could come back in the Derby one week after the Derby Trial, Orman said, "There's a very slight chance."

"Probably not, but it's horse racing, so you never say never," Orman said. The May 15 Preakness Stakes is the other option.

Orman added that if a rash of unforeseen defections between now and Saturday assured Rock Hard Ten of a spot in the Derby field, he likely would skip the Derby Trial and go straight to the Derby.

* Friends Lake, the upset winner of the Florida Derby, arrived at Churchill after an overnight van ride from Payson Park in Florida.

* Tricky Taboo was removed from consideration for the Derby because of a minor injury to his right hind cannon bone. His defection moves Eddington up a notch on the graded stakes earnings list, but Eddington still needs several defections from those above him to get into the race.

* Bob Baffert assumed he would have Corey Nakatani on Preachinatthebar, but Nakatani had already taken the mount on Quintons Gold Rush, who won Saturday's Lexington Stakes. So Preachinatthebar is still without a rider, though Baffert said Cornelio Velasquez is among the candidates.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Jay Privman