03/18/2008 11:00PM

No fast lane on Derby road


For a guy who admitted to "having one of the worst nights of my life on Saturday," trainer Nick Zito sounded far better on Monday, two days after War Pass turned in an inexplicably dreadful effort when losing for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby.

As of Monday, Zito said he could find nothing wrong with War Pass. Barring anything untoward coming to the fore, Zito said he was going to throw the race out and move on, as previously planned, to the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5 as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

Zito, speaking Monday from the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, where he and War Pass have been based this winter, said: "We scoped him. Everything was perfect. We took X-rays. No change. We'll keep taking more today. He'll go back to the track on Wednesday.

"I'm baffled right now. We know whatever happened, that wasn't him. That we know."

Zito opined that perhaps War Pass did not care for the surface at Tampa - he had never previously raced there.

"He always likes to hear his feet rattle," Zito said of War Pass, last year's 2-year-old champion.

Zito objected to the widely reported characterization of War Pass running days after having a fever, which is what co-owner Robert LaPenta was reported to have told some media members immediately following the race

"He did not have a fever," Zito said. "Fever means you're sick. On my mother's life, he never missed an oat. His temperature was a little high, just slightly, last Sunday, but he was fine the rest of the week. Just to make sure, we took a blood on him on Thursday, and it was perfect. He did not have a fever. That's not why he got beat. Why did he get beat? That's what we've got to find out."

Overshadowed by War Pass's first loss were the performances of Big Truck and Atoned, who ran one-two in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Big Truck will race next in either the Grade 3, $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on April 12, or simply train up to the Kentucky Derby, according to Robin Smullen, the assistant to Big Truck's trainer, Barclay Tagg.

Atoned is under consideration for several stakes races on either April 5 or April 12, but nothing has yet been decided, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

The Tampa Bay Derby was one of four races for 3-year-olds over the weekend, and the results covered the gamut. As at Tampa, a heavy favorite was soundly defeated in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, where Z Fortune was a desultory fifth behind the victorious Sierra Sunset.

But at Santa Anita, form held as favored Georgie Boy successfully stretched out around two turns in the San Felipe Stakes, beating fellow sprint stakes winners Gayego and Bob Black Jack.

And at Sunland Park, the WinStar Derby went to Liberty Bull, who had chased Denis of Cork and Sierra Sunset in last month's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, making the form in the Southwest look quite strong.

Sierra Sunset got a Beyer Speed Figure of 99. Liberty Bull got a 95, Big Truck a 93, and Georgie Boy a 92.

Sierra Sunset will remain at Oaklawn for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12, a race that also is under consideration for Georgie Boy and Liberty Bull.

"He's probably got enough graded [earnings] that he can make the field now in the Derby, and that's my owners' hopes and dreams," said Jeff Bonde, the trainer of Sierra Sunset.

The Arkansas Derby would be the third start this season at Oaklawn for Sierra Sunset, a California-bred who had previously done all his racing in his home state, which primarily has synthetic surfaces.

"The reason we're here in the first place is that this is a true dirt track, and that's what you run on at Churchill," Bonde said.

Z Fortune had "no visible excuses," his trainer, Steve Asmussen, said Monday.

"A very humbling sport, it can be," Asmussen said. "I've never been so sure a horse would run well in a long time. We'll aim for the Arkansas Derby."

Asmussen said King's Silver Son, who finished second in the Rebel, would also come back in the Arkansas Derby.

Asmussen also trains the now-unquestioned favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Pyro, the winner of the Louisiana Derby. On Monday, Pyro breezed a slow half-mile at Fair Grounds that clockers reported as being timed in 53.20 seconds.

Georgie Boy most likely will remain in California for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5, but his trainer, Kathy Walsh, has the Arkansas Derby down as a back-up plan.

"I assume we'll stay here for the Santa Anita Derby," Walsh said Monday. "He came out of the race great. It didn't take too much out of him."

Walsh said she was not sure who would ride Georgie Boy in his next race. Rafael Bejarano was scheduled to ride Georgie Boy on Saturday, but was replaced by Michael Baze after Bejarano suffered two fractured vertebra in an accident on Thursday.

The two who were closest to Georgie Boy in the San Felipe may try to duck him next time.

Gayego, who was second, has "lots of options Kentucky, Illinois, New York, Arkansas, Santa Anita, too," his trainer, Paulo Lobo, said Monday.

"We will play it by ear," Lobo said. "Let's wait and see what's going on with the other horses."

Bob Black Jack, who was third, is headed to the rapidly expanding Arkansas Derby.

"I want to get him off this track," said Jim Kasparoff, who trains Bob Black Jack. "It doesn't suit his style. He'd also have to come back in 21 days to run in the Santa Anita Derby. I think four weeks is better for him. In Arkansas, I think we can utilize our speed a little better."

Liberty Bull had the richest payday of the weekend in the WinStar Derby. But since that race is ungraded, the cash does not count towards participation in the Kentucky Derby, where graded stakes earnings are used as a tie-breaker should more than 20 horses enter the race.

Trainer Tom Amoss said Liberty Bull would run next in either the Arkansas Derby or the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 5 at Hawthorne.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini and Mike Welsch