04/10/2008 12:00AM

Halo Najib putting Romans in hunt again


LEXINGTON, Ky. - An upset by Halo Najib in the Blue Grass Stakes wouldn't necessarily translate into the colt being regarded as a legitimate threat to win the Kentucky Derby. After all, the colt has tended to get his best results racing on Polytrack, his pedigree suggests he may have distance limitations, and by getting the hottest jockey in North America, Garrett Gomez, he is catching quite a break Saturday.

Whatever the reasons, his trainer, Dale Romans, would love to be in a position to be told why the Blue Grass winner can't wheel back to win the Derby. Romans, a Louisville native and resident and one of the dominant trainers on the Kentucky circuit for the last decade, has had just one shot at the Derby and is eagerly awaiting his next one.

"This is the time of year everybody has to start showing their cards," said Romans.

Halo Najib, owned by the Zayat Stables LLC, has run three times on synthetic surfaces. He won his career debut at Keeneland last October, won the restricted Ocala Breeders' Sales Championship in February, then finished second to Adriano in the Grade 2 Lane's End Stakes three weeks ago at Turfway Park.

In between those races, he has been less effective in his four dirt attempts, although not dramatically so. He was second in the Iroquois, fifth in the Kentucky Jockey Club, third in the Hutcheson, and sixth in the Fountain of Youth. Romans believes the "jury is still out" as to whether Halo Najib, a Florida-bred by Halo's Image, would be competitive against the best dirt horses in his class.

"That's why we're all here," he said. "My horse has been pretty consistent. Obviously he needs to step it up a notch Saturday, but they all do. I've got a lot of confidence in what he can do."

Two years ago, Romans ran Sharp Humor in the Derby after the colt finished a close second to Barbaro in their final prep, the Florida Derby. Barbaro won the Derby, while Sharp Humor finished 19th, fracturing a knee during the race.

Different perspective for Veitch

Thirty years after sending out Alydar to a record victory in the Blue Grass, John Veitch will watch Saturday with a far different perspective.

This is the first major anniversary of the unforgettable 1978 Triple Crown season since Veitch became chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority in July 2005. Veitch, the retired trainer who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last August, said he felt intense pressure during the years he trained Alydar and other great horses for Calumet Farm.

"There's a feeling of excitement but also of pressure," said Veitch. "I'm certainly more relaxed now than I was then."

Alydar won the Blue Grass over Raymond Earl by 13 lengths, which remains a record victory margin. He then went on to finish second to his arch-rival, Affirmed, in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Affirmed remains the most recent winner of the Triple Crown.

Veitch said the 1978 Blue Grass remains one of the great victories of his career in large part because it was the last time Lucille Markey, whose family built Calumet into a powerhouse, ever watched one of her horses race in person. Mrs. Markey died in 1983, the same year Veitch quit training for Calumet.

Becker to fill in at Belmont

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller in Keeneland history, will substitute at Belmont Park for Tom Durkin during the weeks of the Derby and Preakness. This is the first time that Becker, who lives in Altamont, Ill., has accepted such a high-profile fill-in role since Keeneland installed its first public address system in time for the 1997 spring meet.

Becker, who began his announcing career with Standardbreds in southern Illinois, also has called at Arlington, Hawthorne, and Churchill, even calling the Derby in 1997 and 1998. But primarily because he wanted to pursue a radio career in auto racing, he quit everywhere but Keeneland.

"My auto-racing schedule this May is lighter than usual, so I thought it'd be fun to go to New York to call the horses," said Becker.

Becker will call the Belmont races May 1-4 and 15-18 while Durkin attends to his duties with NBC Sports in Louisville and Baltimore.

Line forms early for bottle autographs

Just after dawn Thursday, the line in the Keeneland grandstand was already about a dozen deep. For what? To get signatures from retired basketball coach Joe B. Hall on the commemorative Maker's Mark bottles that Keeneland and the distillery sell every spring.

The autograph session, by the way, was not scheduled until Friday morning. Suffice it to say the Maker's Mark collectibles are highly prized by the locals.

* An overflow field of turf sprinters has been entered in the Sunday feature at Keeneland, the Grade 3, $125,000 Shakertown Stakes.

Smart Enough, a Maryland-based gelding with 10 wins from 15 career starts, will be favored under John Velazquez when making his seasonal debut in the 5 1/2-furlong Shakertown, the eighth of nine Sunday races. Thirteen were entered, but only as many as 12 can start.