04/27/2004 12:00AM

Pletcher has confidence in his pair

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After nominating a record 35 horses to this year's Triple Crown series, it is no surprise that trainer Todd Pletcher will run two horses in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Some may be surprised that the two are Limehouse and Pollard's Vision.

Limehouse, a son of Grand Slam, was precocious enough to win his maiden in April of his 2-year-old season, and is 2 for 2 at Churchill Downs, including a Derby Day win in the Bashford Manor. He won his first two starts at 3, including the Tampa Bay Derby, before finishing third in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Pollard's Vision won once in his first seven starts. He earned his way into the Derby with a strong, front-running victory in the Grade 2 Illinois Derby on April 3.

Pletcher was also considering Value Plus for the Derby, but intended to enter him only if Lion Heart or Smarty Jones were not entered.

"I knew that we had a lot of nice 3-year-olds, what I wasn't sure was how many were mile-and-a-quarter-type horses," Pletcher said. "I knew that Value Plus was a very talented horse, and Limehouse was a very talented horse, and we had a large talent pool, but I wasn't positive how many of them wanted to get the additional distance. Some of that held true, some of that is still under study."

Limehouse, owned by the Dogwood Stable, finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes when he tired after pressing the early speed of Lion Heart. Fearing Lion Heart was the lone speed in the Blue Grass, Pletcher wanted Jose Santos to keep Limehouse close. But, Limehouse was too sharp and found himself head and head for the early lead. He was beaten 6 1/2 lengths.

"It was the right kind of prep, the horse ran well, and I think there are some reasons we can improve on it," Pletcher said.

Pletcher thought Pollard's Vision made a breakthrough when he won an entry-level allowance race by 5 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream on Feb. 8. His final time for the 1 1/16 miles was a solid 1:42.80. In the Louisiana Derby, Pletcher believes Pollard's Vision may have moved a little too soon when he finished third. Pollard's Vision took advantage of a paceless field to win the nine-furlong Illinois Derby.

"Being loose on the lead is never a bad thing if the fractions are right," said Pletcher, who trains Pollard's Vision for David Moore's Edgewood Farm. "It worked out well, but I don't feel like he's the kind of horse that needs to be on the lead."

Though Pollard's Vision is by sprinter Carson City, Derby winners Northern Dancer and Pleasant Colony are in the third generation of the dam's pedigree.

These two colts represent the eighth and ninth Derby starters for Pletcher, who has a second, third, and fourth, but has also finished last twice. He doesn't believe it's that far-fetched that either Limehouse or Pollard's Vision could win.

"I think we have a chance," Pletcher said. "I would think both horses are going to be fairly big prices, but if either one of them were to step up and win no one would go, 'Geez, I can't believe that horse won.' "

Bet Master David to show?

In the last two Derbies, Churchill-based jockey Joe Deegan was the work rider for Perfect Drift and Peace Rules, each of whom finished third in their respective races. This year, Deegan has twice worked Master David, who he thinks could be third or better in Saturday's 130th Derby.

On Tuesday, Deegan guided Master David through a five-furlong workout in 1:00.82 over the Churchill main track.

"This horse is doing as good as a horse can be doing going into this race," said Deegan, who likens Master David to Peace Rules. "He's a tough little horse; he tries hard. It remains to be seen if he's as good as Peace Rules.''

Friends Lake minding his manners

Trainer John Kimmel sent Florida Derby winner Friends Lake to the starting gate to school on Tuesday morning, but not before surviving a few harrowing moments along the way.

Friends Lake had just completed a spirited 1 1/2-mile gallop and was walking in the vicinity of the half-mile pole when a stable pony lost his rider and ran loose the wrong way around the racetrack - directly into the path of Friends Lake.

As the wayward horse made a mad dash for the five-furlong gap, he came within a couple of feet of Friends Lake, but fortunately for Kimmel, who was aboard his stable pony alongside Friends Lake at the time, a potential disaster was avoided.

Friends Lake ultimately made his way to the gate, where he spent about 15 minutes schooling. Kimmel spent a good deal of that time working with the gate crew, who loaded and reloaded Friends Lake three times.

"I'll give my horse a B for his work at the gate this morning," said Kimmel. "I kept him there a long time to show them [the gate crew] a few things that might help make loading him easier on Derby Day, while at the same time trying not to interfere with their process. The crew was very cooperative."

Friends Lake became rambunctious in the starting gate prior to the Florida Derby, and Kimmel has left no stone unturned in an attempt to ensure that a similar situation will not occur before the Derby. He has even gone so far as to fly New York Racing Association starter Bob Duncan down to Kimmel's winter training headquarters at Payson Park several weeks ago, and again to Churchill Downs this week, to help with Friends Lake's schooling.

"Bob worked with him back at the barn before I took him out, although he did not come with us to the gate this morning," said Kimmel. "The problem in the Florida Derby came about because the day before the race I took him to the gate, and an assistant starter put a shank over his nose and tried to force him in, and there was no need for that. We'll bring him back over to the gate again here Wednesday and hopefully he'll get an A."

Cliff shadows Cliff

Cliff Guilliams is the Kentucky-based chart caller for Equibase. He also has developed a close friendship over the years with trainer Nick Zito, and it was that friendship that led Robert La Penta, a client of Zito's and the owner of The Cliff's Edge, to name a colt in honor of Guilliams.

La Penta said the name is also meant to reflect the colt's sire, Gulch. "Like looking over the edge of a cliff," La Penta said.

"It's been a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Guilliams, who has shadowed The Cliff's Edge to and from the track each morning this week at Churchill Downs.

Guilliams's most critical assignment each year is calling and then compiling the official Kentucky Derby chart. It is something in which he takes great pride. But this year, his bosses decided to give Guilliams the day off, so he can enjoy the Derby in the company of La Penta and Zito.

He's got brains, but no sweet tooth

So, is Smarty Jones really smart?

"Yes, he's very smart," said his trainer, John Servis. "Sometimes he'll see something that would spook a horse, but he just stops, looks at it, and goes around."

Smarty Jones also has learned where the finish line is, having won all six of his starts.

But Smarty Jones has one habit that is odd for a horse. He does not like peppermints. "He won't eat them," Servis said.

Baffert says experience counts

Trainer Bob Baffert has been one of the biggest boosters of jockey Javier Santiago since his arrival in Southern California from Puerto Rico earlier this year. But when it came to this year's Derby, Baffert decided to replace Santiago with Jerry Bailey on Wimbledon, even though they teamed for Wimbledon's biggest victory, in the Louisiana Derby.

"He's going through a transition," Baffert said. "He's going to be a good rider. But in the Derby, there's a little added pressure. After last year, I said I'd never again use a first-time Derby jockey."

Indian Express, one of Baffert's two Derby runners last year, finished 14th of 16 with jockey Tyler Baze, who was riding in his first Derby.

Barn shooting for Derby repeat

Trainer Rick Violette has stabled his Kentucky Derby candidate, Read the Footnotes, in Barn 48 with his longtime friend Anthony Reinstedler. It is the same barn that housed reigning Kentucky Derby champion Funny Cide, like Read the Footnotes a New York-bred, last year. Violette resisted the temptation to put Read the Footnotes in Funny Cide's old stall.

"I didn't want to press my luck," Violette said.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman and Mike Welsch