04/28/2004 11:00PM

Friends Lake to be loaded first in gate

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Pollard's Vision, on the track Wednesday, will start from post position 17. Trainer Todd Pletcher wanted him outside the other speed horses.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Despite two relatively uneventful schooling days, Friends Lake will be the first horse loaded into the starting gate for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs starter Roger Nagel has informed trainer John Kimmel.

Horses are normally loaded into the gate in a specific order according to their post positions, with numbers 1 and 11 loaded first, 2 and 12 second, and so on. Being in post position 6, Friends Lake normally would have been loaded with the second half of the field.

Friends Lake acted up in the starting gate prior to his victory in the Florida Derby. As a result, Kimmel asked longtime New York Racing Association starter Bob Duncan to come to Payson Park training center and also to Kentucky earlier this week to help school the horse in preparation for the Derby.

Kimmel took Friends Lake to the starting gate for three consecutive mornings beginning Tuesday. The New York-bred was a bit difficult to handle on the first of those visits, but appeared to settle down nicely on Wednesday and Thursday morning. As a result, Nagel's decision came as a bit of a surprise to Kimmel.

"He balked for a second this morning, but then went in uncomplicated three consecutive times," Kimmel said.

But Kimmel discussed Nagel's decision with Duncan, after which he decided not to lodge any formal protest with the stewards.

"After talking it over with Bobby, I can see this is probably the right thing to do," said Kimmel. "Friends Lake is very good once he gets into the gate, so in the long run this might prove less traumatic for him. I'd rather have him go this way than take the chance of having another incident like we had in Florida."

Nagel said Friends Lake has gotten better over his three-day schooling session, but the raucous Derby Day atmosphere could change things.

"They're just not ready for all that noise," Nagel said. "I don't trust him. And I don't want to mess it up for somebody else. He does what he wants to do, and if he doesn't want to go in, he won't go in. They've been working on him for a year and a half and they don't have him walking in yet."

Tapit acclimates to Churchill

Wood Memorial winner Tapit seemed a lot more comfortable in his new surroundings Thursday morning than did his trainer, Michael Dickinson.

Tapit arrived in Louisville from Maryland on Wednesday afternoon and spent his first morning at Churchill Downs walking the paddock, standing in the starting gate, and galloping once around Churchill's one-mile oval. Dickinson had a tough time maneuvering around Churchill Downs to watch his horse.

"Here, it's a job to get around," Dickinson said, after catching up with his gray colt in the paddock. "I'm spoiled."

Back home, at Dickinson's Tapeta Farm on the north edge of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, Tapit would have trained at about 8:45 a.m. On Thursday, Dickinson sent Tapit to the track at 6:15, hoping to avoid the traffic that occurs on the track after the renovation break.

Tapit galloped once around the Churchill oval under exercise rider Jonathan Ferriday. Tapit's head was often cocked as he looked at the unfamiliar scenery of tents and stands.

Following the gallop, Tapit walked around the paddock at a brisk pace for almost 30 minutes before standing in the starting gate. Tapit got a little hot in the paddock. After leaving the gate, he lightly galloped another half-mile before pulling up and walking home.

"It's hard to train horses in the dark - they look like little dots," Dickinson said after meeting Tapit in the paddock. "Is that my little dot or someone else's little dot?"

The only accoutrements of home for Tapit were the large chunks of organically grown grass Dickinson brought for Tapit to graze on, and two air purifiers for his stall. Dickinson also brought some Guinness beer - Tapit gets a pint with his dinner around 5 p.m.

In a session with reporters, Ron Winchell, owner of Tapit, said that Dickinson has a competitive edge because of his training center.

Said Dickinson: "The competitive edge I've got is I've got Tapit. That's the only edge I need, really."

Sackatoga reliving Derby 129

Nine of the 10 members of Sackatoga Stable, the group that owned 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, were at Churchill Downs on Thursday, primarily to participate in a book signing. The book chronicles the 2003 Triple Crown campaign of Funny Cide, who won the Preakness but finished third in the Belmont.

Prior to the signing, at the Derby Museum, Jack Knowlton, the head of the syndicate, was on the backside visiting with many of the connections of this year's Derby field. Funny Cide became the first New York-bred to win the Derby. This year there are two New York breds in the field, Read the Footnotes and Friends Lake.

"They're absolutely in my betting scheme," Knowlton said.

Knowlton said that he believes Smarty Jones is the horse whose story most resembles that of Funny Cide.

"We weren't an undefeated horse or had a lot of publicity, but he's a Pennsylvania-bred, and only one Pennsylvania-bred had ever won it before," Knowlton said. "The trainer [John Servis] has never been in the Derby, and Barclay Tagg had never been in the Derby."

Post-position maneuvers

Prominent Southern California owner B. Wayne Hughes had his first Derby starter last year when Atswhatimtalknbout finished a fast-closing fourth behind Funny Cide following a somewhat unlucky trip. Atswhatimtalknbout wore saddlecloth No. 4.

When Hughes had a chance to grab No. 5 for Action This Day at the post-position draw Wednesday, he again took No. 4, leaving an open spot between Action This Day and posts 6 to 10, which had already been drawn.

Said Hughes: "We didn't want to be next to Friends Lake," who already had claimed No. 6. Hughes's obvious intention was to avoid the possibility of Action This Day being adversely affected in case Friends Lake acts up again Saturday.

One other somewhat surprising post-position draw was No. 17 for Pollard's Vision. Todd Pletcher had the choice of several gates closer to the rail, but explained that he wanted to ensure - without getting too far outside - that Pollard's Vision would start outside of other speed horses, since an outside position generally allows more freedom of movement.

Servis an Arkansas traveler

John Servis is a native of West Virginia and has lived most of his 45 years there and in Pennsylvania. He is based year-round at Philadelphia Park. But this winter, Servis took much of his stable to Oaklawn Park because he thought that track had the best 3-year-old stakes program for his colt Smarty Jones.

In the months he spent there, Servis sent out Smarty Jones to three stakes victories. He put the colt in position to claim a $5 million bonus should he add the Kentucky Derby to victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby. And he made plenty of friends.

Servis had visitors aplenty at Oaklawn. He left there with all manner of University of Arkansas Razorback paraphernalia. For much of this week, Servis wore a baseball-style cap from the Hot Springs Country Club before switching to a Smarty Jones cap.

Smarty Jones became a fan favorite at Oaklawn Park. "They're having a Smarty Party on Derby Day," Servis said.

His fan base also extended to the north. Servis received a fan letter from a 4-year-old girl in Illinois whose father wrote an accompanying letter saying he was teaching his daughter to write the letter "S" by using Smarty Jones. Servis has the letter, and the child's crayon-colored drawing, in his tack room at Churchill Downs.

- additional reporting by David Grening, Marty McGee, and Jay Privman