04/15/2003 11:00PM

A familiar stop on way to Derby

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has gotten horses to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle in a variety of ways. Lukas used the Santa Anita Derby as a final prep for Winning Colors in 1988, the Blue Grass Stakes for Thunder Gulch (1995), and the Arkansas Derby for Grindstone (1996).

Yet it is what he did with his most recent Derby winner, Charismatic in 1999, that has evolved into something of a signature move for Lukas. Not only did Charismatic have his final Derby prep in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, but Lukas also used the Lexington last year for Proud Citizen, who two weeks later ran a bang-up second behind War Emblem in the Derby.

This year, with just a little more than two weeks until the 129th Derby, Lukas once again has targeted the Lexington as a potential last-ditch springboard to the Derby. He will run Scrimshaw, his last hope for the 2003 Derby, in the Grade 2 race Saturday at Keeneland.

"Third time's a charm, huh?" Lukas asked Wednesday outside his Churchill barn.

Scrimshaw, by Gulch, is owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, who owned Charismatic and the 1997 Derby winner, Silver Charm, trained by Bob Baffert. After winning his first two starts as a 2-year-old at Santa Anita, Scrimshaw finished third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths by the Baffert-trained Domestic Dispute, in the Jan. 18 Santa Catalina Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Lukas then shipped the colt cross-country and turned him back to seven furlongs, running him in the Feb. 15 Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park.

Scrimshaw ran poorly that day, finishing fourth behind the victorious Lion Tamer. Lukas said Wednesday that he had always known - even when Scrimshaw was winning at Santa Anita - that the colt would someday require corrective surgery for a breathing problem. So, in light of what transpired in the Hutcheson, it did not take the trainer long to deduce that Scrimshaw had trouble breathing. A few days after the Hutcheson, he had the colt sent to the Rood and Riddle veterinary clinic in Kentucky to have the problem corrected.

As is customary with such minor procedures, Scrimshaw missed about three weeks of serious training. Lukas said the surgery worked exceptionally well and that Scrimshaw has been training superbly in recent weeks.

"I don't know where he's going to [finish] Saturday," said Lukas, "but I will say this: I told the surgeon, Rolf Emerson, 'We're going to make you famous.' "

Albeit for slightly different reasons, Lukas sounded similarly confident before the Lexington with Charismatic and Proud Citizen. He said that using the 1 1/16-mile Lexington as a sort of backdoor route to the Derby is not by design, but simply something that develops out of necessity.

"You can't read into it," said Lukas of running horses so frequently in the Lexington.

"The Derby is such a tough race that sometimes people feel like you almost have to qualify in the months leading up to it. But how often do you see a horse peak on Feb. 15 or March 15 or April 1, and not only are they not a factor in the Derby, but in any of the other big races afterward, either?

"Adjusting is the thing," said Lukas, who has had at least one Derby starter in 21 of the last 22 runnings. "Those who can adjust correctly, they can get there. Those who don't, they go home shaking their heads."

Lukas has named Edgar Prado to ride Scrimshaw in the Lexington. Meanwhile, Jerry Bailey has been confirmed as the jockey for Domestic Dispute, who figures as one of the Lexington favorites along with Ministers Wild Cat (Victor Espinoza) and Trust N Luck (Cornelio Velasquez).

The prospective field for the Lexington also includes Champali, Eye of the Tiger, Home of Stars, Most Feared, and Ocean Terrace.

The Lexington, along with the Tesio Stakes from Pimlico, will be televised Saturday on a delayed basis on ESPN2. The half-hour show begins at 6 p.m. Eastern.

Lukas said Proud Citizen is getting close to his first start in nearly a year. "I don't really have a timetable for him but, boy, is he doing good," he said. "He's up to five-eighths now," referring to a sharp five-furlong work Tuesday in 59.60 seconds at Churchill.

Proud Citizen was taken out of training after suffering a fractured shin in the Belmont Stakes. Lukas said the pins that were inserted to stabilize the fracture have been removed and the colt is fully healthy again.

Second filly stakes goes with only four

When Belterra and Ifyouprefersilver, the top two morning-line favorites, were scratched Wednesday from the Doubledogdare Stakes, it was the second time at the meet that a filly-mare stakes had been reduced to a field of four. A week earlier, three horses were scratched from the Madison Stakes, leaving a field of four.

Belterra was scratched Wednesday morning after failing to eat all her feed from the previous night, said Ian Wilkes, assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger. "She wasn't 100 percent when I came in this morning," said Wilkes. "It's a shame, because we thought we were in an ideal spot. Until this morning, she was on cloud nine. It rained on me this morning."

Ifyouprefersilver was scratched because she still has not recovered sufficiently from a severe lung infection that was diagnosed after the filly ran poorly as the favorite in the Lady Hallie at Hawthorne last month.

"She worked great here Sunday, but we pulled some blood on her afterward, and her white count was still a little elevated," said trainer Mike Stidham.

- Keeneland and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association are giving away 10 college scholarships, each worth $1,000, throughout the Friday card. Students must register for the lottery drawing at the east entrance and must remain present to win.

- Churchill Downs has released nominations for all of the Kentucky Derby week stakes. The week starts April 26 with the $150,000 Derby Trial and runs through the 129th Derby a week later.