04/11/2004 11:00PM

Last scramble for Derby gate


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The last few grains of sand in the graded-earnings hourglass are about to fall. Not surprisingly, quite a few horsemen wanting to make the Kentucky Derby have spied the Coolmore Lexington Stakes as their final chance to beat that menacing deadline, and the result is a large prospective field for the Grade 2 race at Keeneland on Saturday.

Although the connections of at least a few Lexington candidates say they probably would not consider the Derby even if their horse won Saturday, the majority sentiment seems to be that the Lexington is providing a last-gasp, back-door route to the Derby. With a $325,000 purse that includes a winner's share of $201,500, the Lexington is an inviting target in a year in which the graded-earnings provision looms as a major factor.

About 13 3-year-olds are under serious consideration for the 1 1/16-mile Lexington, headed by Saratoga County, winner of the Gotham Stakes, and Fire Slam, fifth in the Louisiana Derby. Whereas both colts are among the Lexington hopefuls who likely would wheel back two weeks later in the Derby given a top effort, such is not the case for some others, including Boomzeeboom, Capac, and Suave.

Boomzeeboom, a sharp winner of a recent allowance race at Santa Anita over Minister Eric, was scheduled to arrive Wednesday on a flight from Southern California, said trainer Vladimir Cerin. Even though Boomzeeboom earned Beyer Speed Figures of 106 and 102 in his last two wins, his trainer says he is not looking to Louisville.

"Even if he ran well Saturday, I don't think we'd go to the Derby," Cerin said.

Likewise, trainer Mike Bell has all but ruled out the Derby for lightly raced Capac.

"We aren't even sure about the Lexington," Bell said. "We might wait for the [April 24] Derby Trial, or if a two-other-than came up, that'd be nice. But no Derby."

Samantha Siegel, whose family owns Suave, also said the Derby is highly doubtful, even if the A.P. Indy colt runs powerfully Saturday.

One of the more interesting possibilities for backing into a Derby berth is Race for Glory, who will be a longshot Saturday if trainer D. Wayne Lukas chooses to run him. Lukas has won three of the last five runnings of the Lexington, with Charismatic (1999), Proud Citizen (2002), and Scrimshaw (2003).

Race for Glory, who most recently finished sixth in an April 2 allowance at Keeneland, represents the last chance for Lukas to make the Derby for the 23rd time in 24 runnings. Except for 2001, Lukas has had at least one starter in every Derby since 1981.

Race for Glory, owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, breezed a half-mile Saturday at Churchill Downs in 48.20 seconds.

With known riding assignments, this is the possible field for the Lexington: Boomzeeboom, Corey Nakatani; Bride's Best Boy, Edgar Prado; Capac; Fire Slam, Pat Day; Gamblin, Robby Albarado; Pomeroy, Mike Smith; Quintons Gold Rush, Jerry Bailey; Race for Glory; Saratoga County, Javier Castellano; Song of the Sword; Suave, Cornelio Velasquez; Tiger Heart; and Totally Platinum.

Minister Eric enters allowance

Easily the most notable absentee from the early Lexington lineup is Minister Eric, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up. Minister Eric, with Alex Solis to ride, figures as a heavy favorite when facing six other 3-year-olds in the seventh race here Wednesday, a $54,000 first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

Minister Eric, by Old Trieste, has won just once in seven starts but has amassed $350,000 in graded earnings, most of it from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Because that amount appears sufficient to make the 20-horse Derby lineup, trainer Richard Mandella had the luxury of bypassing the Lexington in favor of a far easier Derby prep.

Only two challengers appear capable of upsetting Minister Eric: Go Now, winner of a maiden race on the Florida Derby undercard at Gulfstream Park for Nick Zito, and the Mark Frostad-trained Burst of Fire, a sharp winner in his only start.

Halfbridled had an infection

Halfbridled came out of last week's runner-up finish in the Stonerside Beaumont Stakes with a high white-blood-cell count, according to Mandella, who said the 3-year-old filly had bounced back with treatment and was on course to compete in the Kentucky Oaks on April 30 at Churchill Downs.

"We treated her with antibiotics, and she's kicking the walls down now," Mandella said Monday. "She must have been fighting an infection."

Halfbridled finished second to Victory U. S. A. in the Beaumont, her second start of the year. She also was second to Silent Sighs in the Santa Anita Oaks.

Halfbridled will head to Churchill Downs on Thursday with her stablemates, the 3-year-old colts Action This Day and Minister Eric, Mandella said.

In the Oaks, Halfbridled will be part of an outstanding field that is expected to include Madcap Escapade, the winner of the Ashland, and House of Fortune, the winner of the Fantasy, in addition to Silent Sighs and Victory U. S. A.

Brass Hat to return in Forerunner

Brass Hat, winner of the March 20 Rushaway Stakes at 38-1, is among the likely starters here Thursday in the $100,000 Forerunner Stakes, said trainer Buff Bradley.

Prince Arch, second in two recent grass stakes at Gulfstream for trainer Ken McPeek, is another probable starter in the Forerunner, a 1 1/8-mile turf race.

* McPeek said that Hard Buck, narrowly beaten by Polish Summer in the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic on March 27, has been turned out for a 30-day break at Longfield Farm but should be back in action by late summer or early fall.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman