03/28/2003 12:00AM

Spensive key in newest derby

Email

Spensive key in newest derby

By MICHAEL HAMMERSLY

PHOENIX ? Sunland Park followed the "Field of Dreams" theory: build it and they will come. Sunland built up the purse to Sunday's WinStar Derby to $500,000, and now it has horses coming from all over to take a shot at the big money.

Trainers Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, and Doug O'Neill are among those sending horses for the race. The 1 1/16-mile WinStar Derby may not end up having any real Kentucky Derby ramifications, but it's an excellent race and a fine wagering opportunity.

Eight are slated to run, including the top three finishers from Sunland's March 2 Borderland Derby, the winner of the Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland last December, a horse who has defeated Atswhatimtalknbout, and a horse who started his career in Mexico.

Here, from the rail out, is an examination of the WinStar Derby runners:

Winning Fans: From Mexico, he hasn't made much of a dent in the U.S. He was no factor in either the Texan Juvenile at Sam Houston or the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs. He finished third at 108-1 in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, but followed with a seventh at 127-1 in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. On paper things look bleak for him, but he did breeze five furlongs at Sunland Monday in a very fast 57 seconds.

Apalachian Thunder: He has hinted at significant ability, and having won on both turf and dirt boosts his credentials. He narrowly lost in an N1X at Santa Anita Dec. 28 to Robledo, who went on next to win the Turf Paradise Derby. Then he won an N1X Jan. 24 over no less a foe than Atswhatimtalknbout, who was recently a good second in the Grade 2 San Felipe and is the likely the favorite for next week's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Apalachian Thunder has speed and toughness, and his two best races came when Pat Valenzuela rode him, and Valenzuela ships in for this ride.

Mr. Decatur: This Asmussen-trained runner has shown a definite fondness for this track. He was nowhere behind Outta Here in the Delta Jackpot on Dec. 21, but after a month and a half off he came to Sunland and won the Invitational Handicap by 10-plus lengths, then won the Borderland Derby. Asmussen has him back on track, and it's worth noting Asmussen has won 15 of his first 31 starts (48 percent) over this track.

Sum Trick: He won the Riley Allison as a maiden, and in his second start, here in December. He ventured to Santa Anita and was second behind Kafwain's tour de force in the Grade 2 San Vicente, earning a 105 Beyer. He tried two turns in the Grade 2 San Rafael March 1 but after pressing the issue faltered to finish fifth behind Rojo Toro and Spensive. Does that lead you to believe this trip is too far?

Flarions Flame: He was well back in the Borderland Derby yet rallied to be third. Still, he got beat five-plus lengths, so it's not like he was any real threat. The style was strange, too ? in his previous four starts he had been right up on or near the pace. Distance and company both work against him here.

Overflight: Maybe the most interesting entrant. He's raced just twice, resulting in wins by 12-plus and 10 lengths. Sure, the water is much deeper here ? not only is he being asked to run in a stakes for the first time, but face quality stakes runners from other points and run long for the first time. Still, there's no telling how good this son of In Excess might be, and the home court advantage can't be taken lightly.

Excessivepleasure: His Borderland Derby try was splendid, not only because he got beat by just a neck, but because he was coming off a hard-fought loss at Gulfstream five weeks earlier in the Sunshine Millions Dash. You would have thought such a grueling run would have sapped him, but there was no evidence of it. The Borderland also showed a mile was within his grasp. Then again, now he has to go even farther, against even tougher. Excessivepleasure did get lathered up and worked up before the Borderland, so maybe he actually didn't fire his best.

Spensive: This may well be the horse. The Baffert-trained runner appears to be just a cut below the best of his crop, but his fine third in the Sham, finishing behind Man Among Men and Empire Maker but ahead of Ten Most Wanted, was a super effort. He's done his best work when able to race outside, so I see the outside post as a plus. Gary Stevens can keep him outside, in the clear, until it's time to hit the gas. Wide? Probably, but I will take that over having him get stopped. Super works say he is ready.

My key horse here is Spensive. I'm leery about Excessivepleasure and Sum Trick going this far, so I will key Spensive over fellow Baffert trainee Apalachian Thunder, Mr. Decatur, and Overflight. I will also play a small flyer using Winning Fans underneath, on the strength of his blistering work.

Build it and they will come? Sure. Build it up and they will bet? Absolutely.

*****

Godolphin boss clearly in it for the long run

By ALAN SHUBACK

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ? One by one, they paraded before the well-appointed mini-grandstand at Al Quoz, Godolphin's nine-furlong training track barely 20 minutes by car from the heart of the city.

This was Wednesday, and the war in Iraq was put out of mind as first Danuta, Godolphin's leading hope for the Kentucky Oaks, and then Mezzo Soprano, a candidate for the 1000 Guineas, galloped around the track. They would be followed by Super Derby winner Essence of Dubai, British Group 2 winner Moon Ballad, and three-time Group 1 winner Grandera.

Finally, as part of a small but elite group working five furlongs, came Kentucky Derby hopeful Inamorato and then Sulamani, who just might be the best older horse in the world.

The only element missing from this parade of stars was its mastermind, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai and defense minister of the United Arab Emirates.

Sheikh Mohammed was not absent because of some pressing duties concerning defense of the UAE. Nor was he attending to the final touches to the $15.25 million Dubai World Cup program Saturday night at Nad Al Sheba, the single biggest event on the UAE sports and social calendar.

Sheikh Mohammed, or "the boss" as he is known by his Godolphin employees, was at the Dubai Endurance Village, preparing to ride alongside three of his sons in the UAE-FEI Endurance World Cup, an 80-mile test of stamina for horse and rider conducted under a blazing sun in some of the most severe conditions imaginable.

The race is divided into stages of 20, 20, 18, 12, and 10 miles, with only a brief break between each to check the condition of the Arabians the contestants are riding. Is this any way for a 55-year-old man to be spending his leisure time?

It is for Sheikh Mohammed, who has made his love of the horse a visible part of Dubai's culture. He and his son Rashid have dominated the world endurance series this season, winning two of the four previous races.

It is, however, at Nad Al Sheba, Newmarket, and, more recently, at Santa Anita where Sheikh Mohammed's equine plans are being based. Al Quoz is the staging area from which about 250 horses will be shipped to either Newmarket, Santa Anita, Belmont Park, or Churchill Downs in mid-April.

From those branches of the Godolphin empire, Sheikh Mohammed will continue to win as many international group or graded races as he can. It is a labor of love that has produced such horses as Dubai Millennium, the ill-fated winner of the 2000 Dubai World Cup.

Still topping the list of Godolphin's races yet to be won is the Kentucky Derby. Simon Crisford, the stable's racing manager, echoed the plans of the boss when he spoke of Godolphin's strategy.

"We will travel to Kentucky with whatever horse or horses we have running in the Derby a little earlier than usual," Crisford said, "but they will not have a prep race for the Derby in America."

Just which horse will be sent to Louisville was to be decided in the UAE Derby on Saturday night, but it is odds-on that Inamorato will make the trip.

Crisford also said that trainer Eoin Harty will have his usual complement of 50 juveniles again this year in the United States. Godolphin was not discouraged by Harty's off season in 2002, when a virus struck the string over the summer.

There will, however, be some changes next year in the European end of Godolphin's juvenile program.

With its Newmarket-based trainer, David Loder, having announced that he will be leaving the sport at the end of 2003, Godolphin will revert to the system it had employed before Loder was brought on as European juvenile manager five years ago. That means the trainers the Maktoums employ throughout Europe ? Michael Channon, Michael Stoute, John Oxx, Andre Fabre, and Jean-Claude Rouget, among others ? will begin to receive additional

2-year-olds. At the end of the year, Sheikh Mohammed and his team will confer with Sheikh Maktoum and Sheikh Ahmed about which horses will join Godolphin as 3-year-olds.

There will also be further international travel for trainer Saeed bin Suroor's Newmarket-based horses this season. Sheikh Mohammed has stated his intention to seek more international prizes and will base at least 25 horses, 3 years old and up, at Belmont Park this spring.

Further expansion could involve South Africa, which is being explored as the next country in which to set up a Godolphin base.

After the great hullabaloo of Dubai World Cup Night, Godolphin will continue to fine-tune its 2003 plans. On April 3, Danuta will have her Kentucky Oaks prep in the UAE Oaks at Nad Al Sheba. And April 6 has been set as the tentative date for the private Godolphin Guineas trials. They will consist of three one-mile turf races at Nad Al Sheba, two for colts ? one of which will include the unbeaten In the Wings colt New South Wales ? and one for fillies, in which Mezzo Soprano, winner of the UAE 1000 Guineas on dirt, will prep for the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.

And, Crisford assures, Godolphin will continue to support the World Series Racing Championship, despite the withdrawal of the Dubai World Cup from the series. It is even money that a Godolphin runner will win the series for the fifth time in its five-year history.

But Sheikh Mohammed was not a winner in the Endurance World Cup. His horse finished the fourth leg in a state of exhaustion, forcing the boss out of the race.

The seemingly inexhaustible Sheikh will now look forward to adding to his collection of the world's biggest Thoroughbred prizes.