02/18/2005 1:00AM

Loyalty has apparent limits


NEW YORK - Two of anyone's top 25 Derby prospects have been yanked from their trainers and sent to new homes in recent days. Are these lamentable acts of disloyalty or just part of the game?

Every case is different, including those of High Fly, who has been switched from Bill White to Nick Zito, and Sort It Out, who will be leaving Allen Iwinski to join Bob Baffert. High Fly was coming off his first career defeat in his first try around two turns, and there was an air of panic about the change. No one likes to see his horse run third as an odds-on favorite while looking like a mile may be his limit. High Fly may in fact turn out to be a miler, but it was way too soon to pull the plug on White.

Sort It Out, on the other hand, was coming off an upset victory, and there's no question that he will get 1 1/4 miles, though how quickly remains an issue. This was not a pure trainer switch, however, but an outright sale. Stonerside Stable purchased 80 percent of Sort It Out after his Whirlaway victory, and Baffert trains its best dirt horses. Also, Iwinski announced last fall he was getting out of the training business this spring to undergo a year of medical treatment.

Baffert has been on both sides of this kind of thing before. Three years ago, he got War Emblem just four weeks before the Derby off a similar private purchase, and managed to get both too much and too little credit for what happened next. Some lionized him for taking an obscure colt and turning him into a Derby winner in just four weeks' time, when in fact War Emblem ran exactly the same race in Kentucky he had run in his previous start winning the Illinois Derby for Bobby Springer. Still, Baffert kept him peaking and happy and got three big efforts out of him, making the trainer more than the lucky recipient of a made horse.

The following year, Baffert lost Domestic Dispute to another private purchase during Derby Week. Domestic Dispute finished 10th in that Derby and has since been trounced repeatedly in races such as the Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Mile. His lone victory, though, came at Baffert's direct expense when he necked out During to win the 2004 Strub.

No one seems eager to break out the violins when it's a jockey rather than a trainer who loses a big horse. When John Velazquez gets a leg up on Afleet Alex in the Rebel next month, no one will call it an outrage that Jeremy Rose lost the mount. Nor did anyone but Jerry Bailey seem ruffled when he didn't get the call on Kitten's Joy when he returned from an injury last fall. While loyalty to one's trainer is expected, loyalty to a jockey is almost as rare as honor among their agents.

Except, perhaps, when there's a Triple Crown on the line. There might well have been a third straight Crown in the 1970's if someone other than Ron Franklin had ridden Spectacular Bid in the Belmont. Not that Coastal didn't run well or that maybe Bid really did step on a safety pin in his stall, but Franklin moved way too soon chasing hapless longshots. And we'll always wonder what would have happened last year if Smarty Jones had been piloted by a rider more experienced than Stewart Elliott at going 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park.

Trainer Buddy Delp knew he was taking the worst of it by sticking with Franklin but thought his horse was good enough to overcome it. John Servis knew that the Belmont was the one race where Elliott might be a liability. They stuck with them anyway, and there's something to be said for that.

Ordinary people on ESPN

Handicapping tournaments make their television debut Sunday when ESPN broadcasts a one-hour special at 5 p.m. on last month's National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas. Daily Racing Form is a title sponsor of the tournament.

Horseplayers are routinely characterized in popular culture as conniving social degenerates playing deluded hunches with money they can't afford to lose. This telecast presents a different picture, of generally thoughtful and reasonable people whom an ordinary civilian might invite into his home without fear of theft or breakage. That alone makes it worth a look.