04/10/2002 11:00PM

Same race, same McPeek, new big horse


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Time has healed the wound to a large degree, but Ken McPeek still remembers the 1995 Blue Grass Stakes as if it were last week.

That year the stretch-running Tejano Run - the first big horse McPeek ever trained - was victimized by a ridiculously slow pace and finished third behind Wild Syn, who scored a stunning upset on the front end.

"That was a painful race for me," said McPeek, who grew up in Lexington, where he graduated Tates Creek high school and the University of Kentucky. In large part because of those hometown connections, "I really wanted to win that day," he said.

Tejano Run eventually finished second in the Kentucky Derby to Thunder Gulch, who, like Tejano Run, also was compromised by the slow pace in the Blue Grass when finishing fourth. "They went a half-mile in 49 [seconds]," and Tejano Run "was boxed in and could never get out" until it was too late.

Seven years later, McPeek, who will saddle Harlan's Holiday as the strong favorite Saturday, has one thing in mind in regard to Tejano Run's Blue Grass defeat: "Redemption," he said.

Blue Grass would be special for Ward

Even more than McPeek, who was born in Fort Chaffee, Ark., trainer John T. Ward Jr. has close ties to Lexington and Keeneland. He grew up just outside the racetrack gate, and his late father, John Sr., had horses stabled here for the inaugural 1936 meet.

Yet for all his success as a trainer - victories in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, 1995 Kentucky Oaks, and 1999 Breeders' Cup Distaff - Ward has never won the Blue Grass, the premier race at his home track. Last year, on the same day that Ward saddled eventual Derby winner Monarchos to a second-place finish in the Wood, he watched on television in New York while Hero's Tribute labored home last in the Blue Grass.

"Winning the Blue Grass would be special for me," said Ward, who will saddle Booklet as the second choice Saturday. "It's supposed to be a home-court advantage, but I don't know if I really have home court. It would be nice to get a good showing in front of the home folks."

Azillion, Hess, and Nakatani

Although trainer Bob Hess Jr. initially believed Azillion most closely fit the profile of a Belmont Stakes horse, he said he will consider the Derby if the colt runs well again Saturday - as he did three weeks ago when finishing a close second to Perfect Drift in the Lane's End Spiral Stakes.

"I just want to have a good trip so we don't have any excuse if he gets beat," said Hess. "I know Harlan's Holiday is a good horse, so I'd be happy to run second or third. He's really taken to East Coast racing, so we're going in hoping for something good."

Mike Smith rode Azillion in the Spiral but will be at Aqueduct Saturday to ride Snow Ridge in the Carter. Kent Desormeaux has been working with Azillion but, "Kent's committed to riding for [Bobby] Frankel these days," Hess said, and will ride Shibboleth in the Carter. So Corey Nakatani picked up the mount on Azillion. "I'm happy to get him," said Hess.

Nakatani, long regarded as one of the top jockeys in the country, has been in something of a slump in recent months, winning with just three of his first 48 mounts at the Santa Anita meet that began Dec. 26. Through last weekend, he was 11th in the Santa Anita jockey standings.

But then, Hess also has not enjoyed a particularly good winter, either, going seven for 88 at Santa Anita.

"Yeah, that makes two of us," said Hess with a laugh. "But maybe we'll get going Saturday."

Azillion is one of two Irish-breds in the Blue Grass, along with Ocean Sound.

Officer going in Lexington Stakes

Officer, who came back with a dazzling victory last weekend at Santa Anita, will head to Keeneland for the $325,000 Lexington Stakes a week from Saturday, trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday.

Baffert initially thought Officer would run in the $100,000 Derby Trial Stakes on April 27 at Churchill Downs. But that race is coming up extremely tough, with the likes of Mayakovsky and the unbeaten Cashel Castle, and is worth far less money than the Lexington.

"He came out of his last race great," Baffert said Thursday from Santa Anita. "I'd rather run for $325,000 than $100,000 against that field."

Several late-blooming 3-year-olds, including Swale Stakes winner Ethan Man, also are scheduled to run in the Lexington, a 1 1/16-mile race that in 1999 was the final Kentucky Derby prep race for Charismatic.

This year, the field is divided between those focusing on the Lexington, and those hoping to perhaps use the Lexington as a tune-up for the Derby. Both Ethan Man and Easyfromthegitgo are not expected to run back in the Derby, while both Flying Dash and Royal Gem - both of whom are possible for the Lexington - would use the Lexington as a Derby prep.

"We are playing catch-up, but not in terms of talent," said Patrick Byrne, the trainer of Ethan Man. "He's a nice colt, with a lot of talent. He hasn't been two turns yet. We're running out of time for two-turn experience. He's very relaxed in the morning, like he'll like a distance of ground, but you never know until you try."

Byrne said the Derby is not a focal point for Ethan Man, who is owned by the West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate that is headed by Terry Finley. "Terry will do right by the horse," Byrne said.

Flying Dash, trained by Neil Drysdale, won the Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland in his United States debut. If he runs in the Lexington, that would mark his first try on dirt. Royal Gem, trained by Bobby Frankel, also has yet to race on dirt.

Morluc stirs up Shakertown

There will be 10 here Saturday instead of the usual nine. The Blue Grass is carded as the ninth, while the secondary feature, the $75,000 Shakertown, goes two races earlier.

Morluc will make his second start of the year in the Shakertown, a 5 1/2-furlong turf race. Morluc, trained by Randy Morse, has been one of the top turf-sprint specialists in the North America for the last few years, having earned nearly $870,000 and two invitations to Hong Kong.

Perhaps the strongest of his nine opponents in the Shakertown are the defending champion, Airbourne Command, and Grangeville, who had a useful recent prep at Gulfstream.

Hero's Tribute coming back

Owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward Jr. had three Kentucky Derby prospects last spring, and one of them, Monarchos, wore the roses. Monarchos has since been retired, but the other two colts, Hero's Tribute and Holiday Thunder, are preparing for races this spring at Keeneland.

Hero's Tribute has not raced since last fall at Keeneland. "He'd had enough of me, and I'd had enough of him," Ward said. So, this winter, Hero's Tribute trained at Palm Beach Downs in Florida, under the supervision of Ward's wife, Donna.

"He'll start before the meeting is out," Ward said.

Holiday Thunder also should run at Keeneland, Ward said. He has raced just once this year, in a comeback race at Gulfstream Park.

Ward's best 3-year-old this year is Booklet, who runs in the Blue Grass on Saturday, but he and Oxley have an unraced 3-year-old colt they believe will be a runner. His name is Proud Halo, a Saint Ballado colt who is nearing his debut.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman