08/12/2011 2:45PM

Emerald Downs: Zayda, Couldabenthewhisky rematched in Emerald Derby

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AUBURN, Wash. – Zayda and Couldabenthewhisky, first and second in the recent Seattle Slew Handicap, will chase a bigger prize Sunday in the $65,000 Emerald Downs Derby, a race that has lost some of its purse – down from $75,000 last year and from $125,000 a decade ago – but very little of its prestige in Northwest racing circles. If you own a 3-year-old in Washington, this is the race you want to win.

Zayda has done his share of winning this summer, capturing two consecutive stakes, and could start as the favorite, though Couldabenthewhisky, with four stakes victories in his back pocket, will be well-bet after encountering traffic problems in the Seattle Slew. Only four horses were entered to challenge the top two, with Winter Warlock, who has finished first or second in 7 of 9 starts, the most likely to spring an upset should the anticipated stretch duel between Zayda and Couldabenthewhisky fail to materialize.

At nine furlongs, the derby is new territory for the every horse in the field, though there’s little question Zayda, a strapping son of Bluegrass Cat, can get the distance. Trainer Blaine Wright said he could thrive at 1 1/2 miles, which makes the late-running Zayda a curiosity at a track where races beyond a mile seldom are carded. Zayda has three career victories, all around two turns. He won a one-mile maiden race at Golden Gate Fields on New Year’s Day, took the one-mile Pepsi Cola Handicap via disqualification at Emerald in June, and then won the 1 1/16-mile Seattle Slew with a last-to-first rally under Leslie Mawing on July 17.

Couldabenthewhisky was undefeated in route races during his 2-year-old season, when he won 4 of 6 starts for trainer Bonnie Jenne, including the season-ending Gottstein Futurity at 1 1/16 miles. He might have extended his streak in the Seattle Slew had he not run into a wall of horses on the second turn. While Couldabenthewhisky waited for racing room, Zayda was circling the field, and by the time jockey Gallyn Mitchell found a clear path, it was too late. Couldabenthewhisky rallied to get the place, 2 1/4 lengths behind Zayda. In a compact Derby field, Couldabenthewhisky’s backers are hoping traffic won’t be an issue.

Winter Warlock knocked heads with Couldabenthewhisky in five consecutive starts in 2010 and finished in front of his rival on two occasions. But Couldabenthewhisky was dominant in the Gottstein, beating a spent Winter Warlock by more than 12 lengths. A year later, Winter Warlock appears to be coming up to the derby in fine form, and his chances were enhanced when trainer Tim McCanna recruited Kevin Krigger from Northern California for the ride. Krigger was aboard Winter Warlock for each of his six starts last year.

Trainer Jim Penney, a member of the Washington Racing Hall of Fame, has saddled two previous derby winners. He will send out two more starters Sunday, but while longshots Jebrica and Kooky Saluki are talented individuals, both are sorely lacking in stakes credentials. Of the two, Jebrica, a fast-closing fourth behind Zayda in the Seattle Slew, would seem to have the best chance.

Dave Bennett, who trains Rainier Missile, is bullish on his horse’s chances, saying this week that “Zayda is a nice horse, but he’ll have to catch Rainier Missile, and I don’t know that he can. My horse is too sharp right now.”

Rainier Missile does boast the derby field’s highest last-race Beyer Speed Figure, an 80, but a victory by the gelded son of Golden Missile would be a stunner. Rainier Missile has never competed in a stakes race, nor won a race around two turns, and his signature victory came in a four-horse race.