04/27/2011 11:47AM

Kentucky Derby: Trainers play guessing game with weather at Churchill

Barbara D. Livingston
Pants On Fire, with Juan Pizarro riding, gallops 1 1/2 miles on Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Handicapping the Louisville weather isn’t quite as difficult as picking the Derby superfecta, but it can fool anybody at any time. Kathy Ritvo was second-guessing herself in mid-morning Wednesday as rain pelted the roof of Barn 41, albeit not quite as hard as earlier, when she went ahead and sent her Derby prospect, Mucho Macho Man, out for a two-mile gallop around 7 a.m.

“I thought I’d get him out before it got any worse,” Ritvo said. “But I do feel bad when I can’t show him off at 8:30.”

In fact, by 8:30 a.m. – when Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses are allotted 15 to 20 minutes of solo time on the racetrack – the rain had eased considerably. By then, trainer Juan Arias, who also is stabled in Barn 41 with Decisive Moment, was nearly finished with 45 minutes of riding the colt slowly around the shed row. The colt – the first Derby prospect to arrive at Churchill, having been vanned here directly from Turfway Park after finishing second in the March 26 Vinery Spiral – certainly was track-ready, done up in four bandages while equipped with a breastplate and a sharp-looking JDA saddletowel, but Arias felt he could afford to skip a morning of being exposed to the elements.

“I’ll walk him by hand 30 more minutes,” he said. “I don’t like the way the track is this morning. This is the first morning we’ve missed.”

Kelly Breen had no such misgivings when sending his Derby prospect, Pants On Fire, for a spirited 1 1/2-mile gallop during the special 8:30 period, which was first instituted last year.

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“This break they have for the Derby horses is awesome,” said Breen, who had two also-rans in the 2009 Derby. “You can really concentrate on a horse for a big race like this. The horses seem to love it. You don’t have anybody coming out on the track doing anything stupid or any 2-year-olds that don’t belong. It’s really, really nice.”

A record amount of rainfall has fallen in Louisville this April, more than 11 inches, with more forecast for Wednesday afternoon and evening. Thankfully, it was supposed to stop, if only for a few days, with sunny skies prevailing Friday and into Saturday evening, when Churchill opens its spring meet with the Derby Trial. According to weather.com, the long-range forecast calls for occasional rain throughout Derby week.

Quiet before final round of works

There were no Derby workers here Wednesday, nor were any supposed to go Thursday, although Dialed In was scheduled to breeze Thursday at Palm Meadows in Florida.

The final round of Churchill workouts will begin Friday with Decisive Moment and Twice the Appeal, then really get rolling with a total of eight or nine works on Saturday and Sunday.

One of the most revealing weekend works will be turned in by Animal Kingdom, the Spiral winner who has never raced on dirt. Barry Irwin, who manages the Team Valor International partnership that owns the colt, said Animal Kingdom would ship Thursday from Keeneland, gallop at Churchill on Friday, then work Saturday.

Uncle Mo probably will breeze Monday, although that is subject to change due to weather, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

Don’t believe everything you hear

As always, backstretch rumors run rampant as the Derby approaches, and one short-lived one was that the filly Kathmanblu is being considered for the Derby instead of the Oaks.

“Huh? No!” Ken McPeek, trainer of Kathmanblu, exclaimed when duly informed.

Churchill racing secretary Ben Huffman, ever aware of the rumor mill, was asked if there might be any 3-year-olds coming out of the woodwork for the Derby.

“Not yet,” Huffman said.

◗ Derby entries close at 10 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday, with the draw set for 5-6 p.m. in the Secretariat lounge on the second floor of the Churchill clubhouse. Versus will have live television coverage.