03/25/2005 12:00AM

Small fields likely Florida Derby Day

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Small fields may be the rule in all five stakes scheduled for Florida Derby Day on Saturday, including the big event itself, which as of Friday had only six confirmed starters.

Racing secretary Dave Bailey on Friday listed only High Fly, Noble Causeway, Bandini, Closing Argument, B. B. Best, and Papi Chullo as definite for the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Noble Causeway was one of two horses made eligible for the race - along with Evil Minister - when late nominations closed Wednesday. Evil Minister is more likely to run in an allowance race on Saturday.

Three of the four other stakes on Saturday's card are graded races, including the Grade 2, $150,000 Orchid Handicap, the Grade 2, $150,000 Pan American Handicap, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away Handicap. The $100,000 Artax Handicap rounds out the day's stakes.

The Florida Derby traditionally had been run in mid-March but was moved to the first week of April for the first time this season.

Of the four stakes on the Florida Derby undercard, only the 1 1/8-mile Skip Away drew more than 15 nominations. Bailey named Eurosilver, Spite the Devil, Tap Day, The Lady's Groom, Unigold, and Zakocity as potential starters, although trainer Pat Reynolds has indicated he is leaning toward running Zakocity in Aqueduct's Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap the same day.

Zakocity is also nominated to the Pan Am, and Reynolds said he might stay here if there's a possibility that grass race will be moved to the main track because of rain.

The Pan Am drew 13 nominees, but only Deputy Lad, Macaw, Navesink River, and two-time defending champion Quest Star are listed as potential starters.

The Orchid closed with 15 nominees. Briviesca, Ellieonthemarch, Honey Ryder, and Vous are among the more likely starters.

Christine's Outlaw, Kennel Up, Stockholder, Value Plus, Gygistar, Sir Oscar, and perhaps Kelly's Landing will run in the 7 1/2-furlong Artax, Bailey said. Gygistar is also nominated to the Skip Away.

Croll beats drum for Housebuster

Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Croll, who officially retired three years ago after 60 years in the business, was delighted at the recent news that his two-time champion Housebuster was among the 2005 nominees for induction into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame.

"He was a pretty special horse," said Croll, 85, who spends winter in south Florida and the rest of the year at the New Jersey Shore. "He started 22 times and won 15 races, 14 of them stakes and 7 of those graded stakes. He ran a mile five times and won four, with his only loss coming in a photo as a 3-year-old to the eventual horse of the year Criminal Type in the Met Mile."

Housebuster was one of four champions trained by Croll, along with Parka, Forward Gal, and Holy Bull. He also trained Bet Twice, who won the 1987 Belmont after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

"I think of that group Holy Bull was the best I ever had because he could do everything," Croll said. "But Housebuster was a close second. Actually, I'm surprised he hadn't been nominated before this year, but perhaps that's because he was a sprinter. The one thing I regret, looking back on his career, is that I never ran him farther than a mile or on the turf - but that was primarily because he was going for the sprint championship both years."

Handy's rough winter

Holy Rocket, a scheduled starter in last weekend's Tampa Bay Derby, suffered a fractured sesamoid in his final prep for the race and will be sidelined indefinitely, according to trainer George Handy.

"It's a big loss," said Handy. "He's a nice horse. I know I couldn't have beaten Sun King in Tampa, but I think he could have been second and I think I could have had a good summer with him."

Handy said Holy Rocket would be sidelined eight months to a year.

Earier this winter, Handy lost his older brother, Grafton, who died on Valentine's Day from injuries suffered in an automobile accident six weeks earlier.

Funny Cide's debut pushed back

Funny Cide worked a half-mile in 49 seconds under regular exercise rider Robin Smullen here Friday. Trainer Barclay Tagg had originally been pointing Funny Cide to Keeneland's Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland on April 28 but has now scrapped those plans.

"There's no sense shipping him all the way to Kentucky and then back up to New York," said Tagg. "I'll just wait and pick out something for him in New York."

Funny Cide has not raced since the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"He had a little splint that was biting him and I didn't want to push him too hard," said Tagg. "especially with the Breeders' Cup finally in our backyard at Belmont Park this year."