04/30/2005 12:00AM

Flower Alley will be wearing blinkers

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Equipment changes aren't the norm for horses running in the Kentucky Derby. Some trainers, such as Bobby Frankel, are reluctant to make any drastic changes before America's biggest horse race.

"I'm just not that brave," Bobby Frankel said earlier this week, explaining his decision not to put blinkers on High Limit for Saturday's 131st Derby.

In contrast, trainer Todd Pletcher believes that if you feel like your horse needs blinkers, "whether it's the Derby or a $35,000 claimer, you got to go with your gut feel."

Pletcher has felt for a while that Flower Alley needs blinkers and plans to use them on his lightly raced 3-year-old in the Derby. Pletcher equipped Flower Alley with blinkers for a couple of his morning gallops last week at Churchill Downs and was scheduled to use them for his pre-Derby workout.

"I don't want to wake up Sunday morning and say, 'Oh man, I wish I had put blinkers on Flower Alley,' " Pletcher said. "We feel like the horse needs them. I felt like he needed them after the Lane's End, but you can't really make a change after a win. He's a horse that needs a little bit of focus, and I think the blinkers will do that based on what I've seen when we did put him on to train him here."

Pletcher also said he hopes the blinkers make an impact because Flower Alley, while finishing second in the Arkansas Derby, was beaten eight lengths by Afleet Alex.

"We need to make up some ground," Pletcher said. "I think what a lot of guys are hoping for is that some of these horses move backwards and their horse is moving forward. You take Bellamy Road, and Bandini and Afleet Alex, they can move back two or three lengths and the field may not catch up to them."

Adaptability always in mind

Bandini, another of Pletcher's Derby horses, was initially supposed to have his final prep for the Kentucky Derby in the Florida Derby, five weeks beforehand. But when a minor foot injury forced him out of the Florida Derby, Pletcher sent him to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes, which is three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

Flower Alley also ran three weeks out from the Derby, in the Arkansas Derby, and Coin Silver had his final Derby prep only two weeks out, in the Lexington Stakes. Pletcher said preparing a horse for the Derby following that final prep race needs to be specific to each situation.

"I try not to let it play with my mind. If it's five weeks out, or four, I just try to deal with concrete facts," Pletcher said. "Coin Silver will be coming back in two weeks, so we adjust accordingly. Flower Alley has looked a little heavy, so we've kind of leaned on him a little bit."

Pletcher has run horses in the Derby four times since 2000. He said he tries not to worry about what other trainers are doing to prepare their runners.

"I just try to keep my horses happy and not get caught up in the hoopla," Pletcher said. "You just work with what got you here. The natural tendency is to watch other horses. You can't help but notice what other people are doing, but you try to separate your knowledge of how and why they do what they do and focus on what I do with mine. Another horse might go in 58, but I don't want to do that myself."

Baffert in unfamiliar role

Three-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert will be in an unfamiliar role when he saddles longshot Sort It Out in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Sort It Out earned his way into the Derby with a second-place finish in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

While War Emblem gave Baffert his third Kentucky Derby in 2003 at 20-1, Sort It Out is likely to be even longer odds than that.

"I'm not in the top 10, I'm in the bottom 10, but still I'm going into it like I'm going to try and win it," Baffert said. "If I see something I don't like this week I'm not going to run."

The only similarity between War Emblem and Sort It Out is that Baffert acquired both horses via private sale in their 3-year-old season. Whereas War Emblem was a front-runner, Sort It Out is a come-from-behind horse.

"He needs a hot pace to run at," Baffert said. "No hot pace, he's not going to be effective."

Baffert confirmed that Brice Blanc, who rode Sort It Out in the Lexington Stakes, would retain the mount for the Derby.

"I've had a lot of luck with Brice. He's one of the best turf riders in the country and [Sort It Out] has to be ridden like that, with patience early," Baffert said.

With Blanc named on Sort it Out, that leaves only two Derby horses without riders: Andromeda's Hero and Going Wild.

Perret returns at age 54

Craig Perret will be riding in his first race in nearly six months during Derby week. Perret, who lives in nearby Shelbyville, Ky., has maintained a low profile since being one of 14 jockeys banished from Churchill last November during a dispute over accident insurance for jockeys .

Perret, 54, has hired former trainer Larry Edwards as his agent.

"Craig's been out getting on horses the last few days," said Edwards. "His fitness level and his timing are amazing. It'll be like he hasn't missed a day."

Perret, who has won more than 4,400 races, is one of five jockeys on the 2005 Hall of Fame ballot. He has ridden regularly in Kentucky for about the last 10 years.

Oaks boils down to Sis City

When trainers with fillies in the 131st Kentucky Oaks start talking about the race, it doesn't take them long to bring up Sis City, the speedy filly who figures as an odds-on choice when the Grade 1 Oaks is run Friday. Sis City enters off two smashing victories - a 16-length romp in the Feb. 5 Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park and a 10 1/2-length runaway in the April 9 Ashland at Keeneland.

Bernie Flint, who will saddle Runway Model as one of the secondary wagering choices, is one to readily acknowledge that Sis City is strictly the filly to beat. Flint is adamant that someone - anyone - needs to pose a challenge to Sis City to prevent her from scooting away to another big win.

"If nobody else goes out after her, my filly will, I'll tell you that," said Flint. "Everybody knows what has to happen for somebody else to have a chance. Somebody's got to run with Sis City."

Runway Model, a consistent, late-running filly owned by Naveed Chowhan, will be ridden for the first time by Patrick Valenzuela. "We wanted to get a top jockey, and that's what P Val is," said Flint.

Besides Sis City and Runway Model, the other probables for the $500,000 Oaks are Dance Away Capote, Gallant Secret, In the Gold, Memorette, Rugula, and Summerly.

Entries for the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, as well as the entire Friday card, will be drawn Tuesday.

Sis City, trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., was scheduled to have her final prerace workout Sunday. She has been stabled at Churchill since shortly after her Ashland win. Edgar Prado has the mount.

Fanfare for grand opening

Opening day of the Churchill spring meet normally comes without pomp and circumstance, but considering that Saturday was the unveiling of the track's $121 million renovation, there were a few special touches.

First came a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at Gate 17, with the honors performed by Jerry Abramson, the mayor of Louisville, Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs Inc., and Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs racetrack. Then, before the first race, the West Louisville Boys' Choir performed a stirring rendition of the national anthem, followed by Churchill's bugler, Steve Buttleman, with "My Old Kentucky Home."

"It was decided at an employees' meeting Tuesday that we needed a little something extra because of what a special day this is for all of us," said a Churchill spokesman, John Asher.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Jay Privman