04/19/2005 11:00PM

A shaky Sort It Out Baffert's last gasp


Bob Baffert has had a decade-long love affair with the Kentucky Derby. Saturday will be Baffert's last chance to keep that romance going for this year.

Baffert will run Sort It Out in Saturday's $325,000 at Keeneland, hoping the New York-bred can revert to the form that brought him to Baffert's barn in the first place. Sort It Out would need nothing less than a victory to assure himself a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 7.

Sort It Out has zero graded stakes earnings, and graded money is the criteria that determines the Derby field if more than 20 horses are entered, as is likely to be the case.

Baffert's eight-year streak of having at least one starter in the Kentucky Derby ended last year. It ended in a most unkind way when Wimbledon, the Louisiana Derby winner, was found to have a tendon injury the day before the Kentucky Derby.

"The Derby's great," said Baffert, who has won the Derby three times since 1997. "The Derby's not great if you don't have a chance to win. We'll find out where I stand with this horse this week. He would have to give me a really good race. He's got to find 10 lengths really quick.''

Sort It Out is one of five confirmed runners for the Lexington, which will be run at 1 1/16 miles and produced 1999 Derby winner Charismatic. The others are Rockport Harbor, Storm Surge, Going Wild, and Actxecutive.

Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable purchased 80 percent of Sort It Out from the Preferred Pals Stable following his victory in the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct in February. He was transferred from Allen Iwinski to Baffert.

Sort It Out, a son of Out of Place, made his first start for Baffert in the Louisiana Derby, where he never threatened while finishing eighth, 11 1/2 lengths behind High Limit. On April 2, Sort It Out finished third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, in the WinStar Derby at Sunland Park.

"I've run him on the two most speed-biased racetracks,'' Baffert said. "Unfortunately, that's all we get nowadays. People think the horses are getting faster, I think the tractors are getting faster. It seems like on the big days these tracks are so souped up, the speed horses, you can't catch them.''

Keeneland is also known as a speed-biased track. Baffert sees nothing but speed in the Lexington field, however, and hopes Sort It Out is good enough to run them down.

"He needs a hot pace and I think the Lexington will have it,'' said Baffert, noting that Rockport Harbor, Actxecutive, and Going Wild like to be forwardly placed.

Impressed with Afleet Alex, Bellamy Road, Bandini, and High Fly, Baffert believes this is shaping up as one of the toughest Derby fields in many years. He just hopes to be part of it.

"You can't give up,'' Baffert said. "I owe it to the owners and to the horse. His Aqueduct races were good, if he can just repeat them.''

Lethargic work concerns McGaughey

Trainer Shug McGaughey remained on the fence regarding the Derby prospects of Survivalist after the Gotham winner and distant runner-up in the Wood Memorial worked a lethargic half-mile in 51.61 seconds Wednesday morning over Belmont Park's main track.

"I wasn't looking for a whole lot, but that wasn't close to what I was looking for,'' McGaughey said.

McGaughey doesn't usually have jockeys work his horses, but he had Richard Migliore work Survivalist on Wednesday. Survivalist broke off a bit slowly and went his first quarter in 26.80 seconds, according to the clockers. He got his final quarter in 24.81 and was timed galloping out five furlongs in 1:04.

McGaughey said he plans to work Survivalist at the beginning of next week and then again next weekend.

In other Derby developments:

* Afleet Alex was scheduled to arrive at Churchill Downs late Wednesday afternoon following a van ride from Oaklawn Park and go into Barn 41, one of two barns that traditionally house runners for the Derby and Kentucky Oaks. Afleet Alex, an eight-length winner of the Arkansas Derby, shipped in with about seven other horses from the Tim Ritchey stable.

* Greeley's Galaxy, the romping winner of the Illinois Derby for owner B. Wayne Hughes, is scheduled for a Friday workout at Churchill Downs. Greeley's Galaxy has been shipped into the Churchill barn of Al Stall Jr., who long has trained a Midwest string for Hughes, pending the arrival of trainer Warren Stute from California.

Stall will oversee the Friday work, but then Stute will be at Churchill for the next one, about a week later. If Greeley's Galaxy makes the Derby as a $200,000 supplementary nomination - and he can only do so if fewer than 20 horses are entered because earlier nominees trump supplements - then Stute will be the trainer of record.

Meanwhile, Hughes and trainer Ron Ellis have shipped Don't Get Mad to Churchill from California for the April 30 Derby Trial. Ellis said running Don't Get Mad back in the Derby is still possible although highly unlikely.

* Trainer Craig Dollase confirmed Wednesday that Corey Nakatani will ride Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko in the Derby. Nakatani rode Wilko in the Hollywood Futurity and the San Felipe, but Frankie Dettori had the mount in Wilko's most recent race, the Santa Anita Derby.

* Greater Good, fourth in the Arkansas Derby off wins in the Southwest and Rebel at Oaklawn, emerged from the race in good order and was scheduled to return to training Thursday at Churchill, said trainer Bob Holthus.

"We're going to see how he does and see what else is happening," said Holthus. "We're definitely leaning toward running, although the way he trains in the next couple of weeks will be the overriding factor."

* A workout Tuesday by Giacomo was so slow it did not make the tab. According to trainer John Shirreffs, Giacomo worked seven furlongs at Hollywood Park, his first work since he finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. But the time was so slow - Shirreffs said Giacomo went in approximately 1:35 - clockers did not report the breeze.

No big deal, according to Shirreffs. "I'm fine with it," he said. "I just wanted to give him a breeze and get him back on schedule."

He said Giacomo would get two more workouts before the Kentucky Derby.

* General John B, second in the Santa Anita Derby, worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 at Santa Anita on Wednesday.

- additional reporting by Brad Free and Marty McGee


WHO'S HOT: The term is relative this week. There are three newcomers to the Derby Watch list, but all are regarded as extreme longshots, and are only on the list because they have yet to be taken from Derby consideration. Two of them - Sort It Out and Storm Surge - are scheduled to run on Saturday in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. They are 60-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Also new to the list is Spanish Chestnut, who is 80-1 following his disappointing race in the Blue Grass Stakes. Afleet Alex made a big jump following his victory in the Arkansas Derby. He is now the second choice on Watchmaker's line at 6-1 after being 20-1 a week ago. Bandini, the Blue Grass winner, is now the third choice at 8-1 after being 12-1 last week.

WHO'S NOT: Four horses - Blues and Royals, Cat Shaker, Mr Sword, and Rush Bay - were removed from the list because of illness or poor performance in the past week. Sun King, the second choice on Watchmaker's line one week ago at 8-1, floated up to 15-1 following the Blue Grass. Consolidator is now 30-1 after being 12-1 one week ago, and Greater Good is also 30-1, twice his price of last week.

ON THE BUBBLE: About the only one left is Actxecutive, who runs in the Lexington on Saturday.

3-year-old graded stakes earnings

The leading contenders for the 131st Kentucky Derby based on earnings in graded stakes races, the tiebreaker if the field exceeds the maximum 20 entries:

1 Afleet Alex $1,245,000
2 Wilko 1,004,515
3 High Fly 796,500
4 Consolidator 632,250
5 Bellamy Road570,000
6 Bandini525,000
7High Limit510,000
8Flower Alley500,000
9 Buzzards Bay480,000
10Sun King402,500
11Greater Good391,344
13Rockport Harbor 235,700
14Noble Causeway190,000
16Storm Surge182,640
17Closing Argument165,000
18General John B150,000
19Wild Desert 131,320
20Spanish Chesnut124,000
21Andromeda's Hero115,000
22Actxecutive 51,280
23Going Wild 47,500
24Southern Africa32,790
25Sort It Out 0
26Greeley's Galaxy *300,000

* - not nominated to Triple Crown