01/01/2008 12:00AM

Fertile ground for Derby prospects


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The eventual winner of the Kentucky Derby has wintered in south Florida the last two years, and three of the last five. So it comes as little surprise that the Florida search for Derby contenders already is in high gear for 2008, especially with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and likely divisional champion War Pass having taken up residence at the Palm Meadows training center just north of Gulfstream Park.

Whether a Florida 3-year-old can perpetuate that recent dominance obviously remains to be seen, but rest assured there are plenty of prospects - both proven and still to develop - stabled here as the Gulfstream meet gets under way Thursday. War Pass is the most obvious candidate to follow Funny Cide (2003), Barbaro (2006), and Street Sense (2007) in blazing a northbound path from here to Churchill Downs, but others surely will generate plenty of buzz in the four-month period that culminates May 3 with the 134th Derby.

Nick Zito, trainer of War Pass, said his star has settled in comfortably and, given ideal circumstances, will have three prep races toward the Derby. Working backward, the Wood Memorial in April would be his final prep, preceded by the March 15 Tampa Bay Derby, preceded by a race either at Tampa or Gulfstream in February. War Pass is scheduled to have his first breeze since his Oct. 27 BC Juvenile victory in the next few days, said Zito.

Not unlike three years ago, when Zito came to Florida from New York with a slew of Derby prospects - he ultimately ran five horses in the 2005 Derby, tying a race record - the Hall of Fame trainer appears stacked again. Not only does he have War Pass in his barn, but he also has Anak Nakal, winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November at Churchill, as well as several other possibilities, including Coal Play and Cool Coal Man.

Zito has six of the 52 3-year-olds nominated to the Hutcheson Stakes this Saturday at Gulfstream, but two other trainers named even more, tipping off their depth. Todd Pletcher, perennially loaded, named nine, while Ken McPeek, who less than two years ago was still on a self-styled sabbatical from training, named 10.

Pletcher has said repeatedly that his current crop of 3-year-olds has not been as precocious as those of recent years, but maybe that will prove a blessing in disguise. Much of the annual pre-Derby hype typically focuses on how the Pletcher barn is teeming with talent, and yet he is still looking for his first Derby win.

"Maybe it can work the other way for us this year," said Pletcher, who has three divisions of horses in south Florida alone - at Gulfstream, Palm Meadows, and the Palm Beach Downs training center. "Sometimes when you're holding a hot hand in January, February, or March, that doesn't mean you'll have a hot hand in May. The crop we have this year, either they're better on turf or slow to develop or not any good, I guess. We're just kind of waiting for some of these to step forward. We do have some coming in the right direction. At this stage, I'd say we're probably a little behind where we've been in the past, but sometimes they'll surprise you."

Perhaps the most promising of the sizable Pletcher group is Monba, most recently a late-closing fourth in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park after opening his career with two victories in Kentucky. A Maria's Mon colt, Monba has since returned to Florida and will run next in either the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream or the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

McPeek has maybe a half-dozen viable Derby prospects among a deep group, with Racecar Rhapsody having shown the most with an eye-catching run when he finished second in the KJC.

"We've got a nice foundation," said McPeek. "Do we have horses that can make it as far as the Derby? That's hard to say. They've all got to keep developing."

Highly conspicuous by his absence from the nominations list for the Hutcheson is Bill Mott, who, along with Zito, arguably has the most potent lineup of Derby prospects. Based at the Payson Park training center some 90 miles north of Gulfstream, Mott has this trio among his Payson shed rows: Court Vision, winner of the Iroquois and Remsen; Majestic Warrior, winner of the Hopeful; and Z Humor, dead-heat winner of the Delta Jackpot.

Mott's reputation as a trainer of mainly older horses and grass horses continues to undergo a remarkable transformation. He enjoyed an extraordinary latter half of 2007 by frequently winning with 2-year-olds, and although he was front-and-center 10 years ago after inheriting the training of Favorite Trick, who was eighth in the 1998 Derby, he is seldom associated with the Derby, having done no better than eighth with four starters.

Among the numerous other 3-year-olds eligible to come to the fore quickly is Tale of Ekati, the Belmont Futurity winner whose trainer, Barclay Tagg, won the Derby with Funny Cide.

Tale of Ekati is training at Palm Meadows because he didn't seem to like the Gulfstream track, Tagg said. For that reason, Tagg is thinking of running Tale of Ekati in Derby preps at Fair Grounds or Tampa Bay Downs.

"Everything is tentative depending on how he does," he said.

The Florida Derby series begins Saturday with the $150,000 Hutcheson at seven furlongs. The other 3-year-old races are the Feb. 2 Swale at 6 1/2 furlongs, the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth at 1 1/8 miles, and the March 29 Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles. The Holy Bull, once a January stepping-stone, has been moved to April 12.

As for the Florida-based crop of 3-year-old fillies, they don't appear as formidable as the males, considering divisional leaders Indian Blessing (California), Country Star (California), and Proud Spell (Louisiana) are elsewhere. Still, there is a solid core, led by Mushka, Elusive Lady, and Melissa Jo, the one-two-three finishers in the Demoiselle at Aqueduct, and C J's Leelee, the Golden Rod Stakes runner-up for McPeek.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch