04/30/2002 11:00PM

A late party crasher


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - An expected field of 20 was entered in Saturday's 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, but not the expected field of 20. In a last-minute decision that changed the make-up of the field, knocked out one runner who hours earlier seemed certain to be in, and left nerves frayed, trainer Bob Baffert decided to enter Danthebluegrassman, who had been dismissed as a Derby possibility by Baffert following his last-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

Baffert never had mentioned Danthebluegrassman as a Derby contender since then, and his decision caught everyone, most notably the connections of Windward Passage, off guard. Windward Passage would have been in the race had Danthebluegrassman not been entered.

Baffert said he did not tip his hand previously regarding Danthebluegrassman "because I didn't want to be bugged." He said Danthebluegrassman had trained well at Churchill, and that convinced him to "take a chance."

Mike Pegram, the owner of Danthebluegrassman, said the decision to run was made after Danthebluegrassman worked six furlongs in 1:11.80 on Tuesday morning with jockey Jorge Chavez aboard. Danthebluegrassman's best Beyer Speed figure is 96, and his numbers have steadily declined in his last three starts. He earned a 78 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Barry Irwin, the president of the Team Valor syndicate that owns Windward Passage, had the unenviable task of arriving at Wednesday night's post position draw and immediately having to inform some of the syndicate partners of the disappointing news.

"I'm not commenting," said a dejected Irwin. "It's counter-productive."

There is previous bad blood between Baffert and Irwin. Two years ago, at the draw for the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert made an ill-tempered comment about the training of The Deputy, a Team Valor colt trained by Jenine Sahadi.

Kent Desormeaux was named to ride Danthebluegrassman. Desormeaux became available when his preferred mount, U S S Tinosa, failed to make the field because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races. Baffert, Desormeaux, and Pegram combined to win the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet. Chavez, who worked Danthebluegrassman, is riding Easy Grades.

When post positions were drawn for the 1 1/4-mile classic, probable favorite Harlan's Holiday landed post 14, at the outside of the main gate. The final six horses in the field are placed in an auxiliary gate. Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form made Harlan's Holiday the 4-1 favorite on his early line.

The Derby draw involves a two-step process. First, a blind draw is held to determine the order of selection. Next, a representative of each horse - usually the trainer or owner - picks his horse's post position.

Many surprisingly chose outside post positions when seemingly better spots were available. Came Home was put in post 15 and Saarland in 16, even though post 6 was available at the time. Perfect Drift, who had the 19th pick, wound up in post 3, and Wild Horses, who had the last pick, ended up in post 2. The champion colt Johannesburg will break from the rail.

Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, the one-two finishers in the Wood Memorial, wound up with the first two selections. Trainer James Bond chose post 10 for Buddha, and trainer Bobby Frankel chose post 9 for Medaglia d'Oro. Since the Derby field is loaded two runners at a time - 1 and 11, 2 and 12, etc. - Buddha will one of the last two horses loaded into the gate.

The Derby's purse is $1,205,000, with $905,000 to the winner if all 20 start. Both the total purse, and winner's share, are Derby records.

The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday calls for morning showers, then clearing, with a high in the mid-70's.

A total of 24 horses entered the Derby. But since a maximum of 20 can be in the race, four horses - Straight Gin, Sunday Break, U S S Tinosa, and Windward Passage - were excluded because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races. There is no also-eligible list.

The field was thought to be finalized Wednesday morning when trainer Patrick Biancone announced that Mayakovsky would not be entered in the race, seemingly allowing Windward Passage to get into the field. But Baffert's last-minute, secretive decision to run Danthebluegrassman ($108,750 in graded stakes earnings) bounced Windward Passage ($100,000) back out of the field.

Mayakovsky, who finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby in his last start, is owned by Michael Tabor, who owns Johannesburg in partnership with John Magnier. Magnier and Tabor are the principals in Irish-based Coolmore Stud. Biancone said that once Johannesburg, and Aidan O'Brien-trained stablemate Castle Gandolfo, arrived from Ireland safely Tuesday night, there was no need to enter Mayakovsky.

"I was the reserve quarterback. The top player," Biancone said, referring to Johannesburg, "has arrived."

Windward Passage, who finished in a dead heat for third in the Arkansas Derby in his last start, had been on the bubble all week. He has the same amount of graded stakes earnings as Wild Horses, but Wild Horses was preferred because he has more earnings in non-graded stakes races, the first tie-breaker.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Windward Passage, saw his emotions see-saw through the day. In the morning, before it was known that Danthebluegrassman had been entered and when it appeared Windward Passage was in the race, Asmussen said he was "very elated."

Wednesday night, when Asmussen arrived at the post position draw and found out that Windward Passage had been bumped, he said, "They need to let somebody know before right now."

The last piece of the Derby came together Wednesday, when trainer Todd Pletcher decided to stick with jockey Rene Douglas for the ride on Wild Horses. Douglas rode Wild Horses when he finished second in the Arkansas Derby, but Pletcher had contemplated replacing Douglas with, among others, Desormeaux.

Gary Stevens, who would have ridden Sunday Break had he made the Derby field, picked up the mount on Johannesburg.

Both Castle Gandolfo and Johannesburg were confined to a quarantine facility adjacent to Keeneland on Wednesday. Their blood was sent to a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and if it comes back clean, they will be free to train at Keeneland, perhaps as early as Thursday morning.

Castle Gandolfo and Johannesburg are scheduled to travel by van to Churchill Downs on Saturday morning. Perfect Drift, who is stabled at the nearby Trackside training center, also will not be on the grounds at Churchill Downs until Derby morning.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Marty McGee