05/02/2011 3:18PM

Kentucky Derby: Track holding up to Mother Nature

Barbara D. Livingston
Midnight Interlude was one of five Derby horses to work over a wet Churchill Downs track Monday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Last month, an all-time record rainfall for April was recorded here. And there has been no let up as the 137th Kentucky Derby approaches on the first Saturday in May, forcing trainers to make last-second adjustments, hold their breath, and hope their horses handle whatever surface gets thrown at them.

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On Monday, five of the 20 horses expected to run in the Derby had their final workouts at Churchill Downs, completing the serious preparations for a race that went from one-sided to wide-open following 2-year-old champ Uncle Mo’s defeat in the Wood Memorial last month. Included among Monday’s workers was Midnight Interlude, the Santa Anita Derby winner, who will be out to give his trainer, Bob Baffert, a fourth Derby victory.

“I’m just glad I brought a raincoat,” Baffert said outside his barn Monday morning. “I’ve got to get the dust off my raincoats in California when I bring them to Kentucky.”

Discussion of the surface has raced head-and-head with that on the composition of the field in recent days. Overall, trainers have been highly complimentary of the job Butch Lehr, the Churchill Downs track superintendent, and his crew have done with the surface. It was inundated with 14 inches of rain last month, and in the 24 hours preceding Monday’s training session, another two inches fell at Churchill Downs, Lehr said Monday.

“For the amount of rain they’ve had, the track is great,” said Eddie Kenneally, who sent Santiva out first thing Monday morning for his final drill.

The forecast is unsettled for the rest of the week. A lingering, wet cold front that arrived Monday was expected to keep the temperature in the low 50s on Tuesday. Warmer temperatures, and dry conditions, are forecast for Wednesday – when entries are due and post positions will be drawn for the Derby – and Thursday.

But a new front is predicted to arrive on Friday, bringing pockets of light rain and an isolated thunderstorm. And on Saturday, “yet another strong upper disturbance moves into Kentucky,” The Weather Channel report reads, bringing a threat of rain and thunderstorms, some of which “may be severe.”

Churchill Downs has a reputation of drying quickly, but if rain arrives on Saturday, some trainers won’t mind.

“He likes it wet,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said, referring to Soldat, who romped to an impressive win in an allowance race on a sloppy, sealed track at Gulfstream Park in January. “I hope the skies open at 5 p.m.”

Soldat made his first appearance on the track on Monday after arriving Saturday from south Florida. On Tuesday, Comma to the Top – who had a sharp workout Sunday at Hollywood Park – was expected from California, Master of Hounds was scheduled to arrive from Ireland, Toby’s Corner was due by van from the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, and Twinspired was going to be sent by van from the nearby Trackside training center, meaning that all the runners intended for the race would be on the grounds.

The Derby field has a maximum of 20 runners, and, as of Monday, 22 horses were looking to run in the race after both Anthony’s Cross and Mr. Commons were withdrawn from consideration on Sunday. Should that number hold until Wednesday, graded stakes earnings would be invoked to determine the field, and both Derby Kitten and Sway Away would be excluded. There is no also-eligible list for the Derby.

Entries are due to be submitted on Wednesday morning. Post positions will not be drawn until Wednesday evening, during a one-hour live telecast on Versus beginning at 5 p.m. The draw will be a traditional, double-blind draw, where a numbered pill is pulled from a jar concurrent with an entry sheet being pulled from a folder. Churchill Downs last year did away with the draft format it had for a number of years, where a representative from each horse picked their post.

One thing trainers could choose on Monday was what time to go to the track. Churchill Downs opens for training under the lights at 5:45 a.m., then has a 20-minute renovation break around 8 a.m before reopening. On Monday, Santiva was one of the first horses on the track, and he was timed by Daily Racing Form going a half-mile in 49.99 seconds with jockey Shaun Bridghoman.

“I thought the track at 5:45 was the best it could be,” Kenneally said.

Kathleen O’Connell said she also believed the surface was best first thing in the morning, so she had Watch Me Go head to the track right around 6 a.m., and he was timed in 1:02 for five furlongs, followed by an extensive gallop out. Jockey Freddie Lenclud was aboard for the work, but Rafael Bejarano has the mount in the Derby.

Just minutes later, Nehro covered a half-mile in 50.72 seconds with exercise rider Carlos Rosas for trainer Steve Asmussen.

During the renovation break, floats – large wooden boards affixed to the back of tractors – were used to squeeze excess water out of the surface.

Midnight Interlude came out right after that work was done and proceeded to go five furlongs in 1:00.46 with jockey Martin Garcia. Victor Espinoza has the mount for the Derby, but Garcia is Baffert’s favorite jockey when it comes to working horses.

“I thought it was a good track,” Baffert said. “It’s when it starts drying out that you’ve got to watch it carefully.”

The final Derby horse who worked was Brilliant Speed, and he handled the wet surface well, covering five furlongs in 1:00.98 under assistant trainer Dan Blacker. Brilliant Speed’s trainer, Tom Albertrani, would welcome an off track on Saturday.

“I’ve always thought Gone West,” Albertrani said, referring to the damsire of Brilliant Speed, “is the best mud pedigree. And this horse is by Dynaformer. This horse is bred for the mud.”

– additional reporting by Brad Free and Mike Welsch