02/15/2008 12:00AM

A stacked hand can often go bust

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That whole thing about strength in numbers, Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito can tell you, when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, it's a damn lie. Twice in the last three years, a trainer has saddled 25 percent of the final Derby field, five of the 20 runners. Zito did it in 2005, Pletcher last year. And of those 10 horses, the best any of them could finish was sixth.

So as the long march begins to the 134th Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs, Zito finds himself in a familiar, but not completely comfortable, position. Of the 25 3-year-olds on the inaugural 2008 list of Daily Racing Form's , Zito has three, including the unbeaten War Pass, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and, with it, the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. He also has Anak Nakal, the Kentucky Jockey Club winner, and the steadily improving Cool Coal Man.

Does he like the position he's in? Let racing's version of Yogi Berra try and tell you, as only he can: "We're in an advantageous position to be in this position, but we're not in the position. That's a typical Nick Zito quote. Right or wrong? We want to get in that position, and when we get in that position, I'll be glad to tell you how we like being in that position."

In other words. . .

"Am I loaded?" he asked rhetorically. "Let me tell you something. Sometimes you're loaded and the gun don't shoot."

This should not be interpreted as skepticism by Zito, merely realism. He won the Derby twice in four years, in 1991 with Strike the Gold and 1994 with Go for Gin, and has tried desperately to get another. For all Zito's success, most notably his election to the Hall of Fame two years ago, it is the Derby that drives him. And he has come to learn it's not all that easy.

Neither War Pass nor Anak Nakal has raced this year, but they are getting close. War Pass is expected to turn up in a one-mile overnight race at Gulfstream before the end of the month, while Anak Nakal and Cool Coal Man are being pointed to the Grade 2, $350,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 24.

"Once we get War Pass and Anak Nakal started, we'll know where we're at," Zito said.

War Pass is trying to emulate Street Sense, who last year became the first horse to win the BC Juvenile and then the Derby.

"They're two different horses," Zito said. "War Pass has incredible speed. It's a beautiful sight to behold. We'll have to see how it plays out."

He said War Pass has "gotten even more better looking."

"Like Joe Namath," Zito said. "He gets better looking every day."

War Pass certainly looked good last Saturday, even though he did not race. He was flattered by the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, which was won impressively by Pyro, who finished second to War Pass in three straight races last year, including the BC Juvenile and the Champagne. Pyro will make his next start in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 8, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

"I was extremely impressed," Zito said. "That was a wild race. It goes to show why Lane's End stepped up to retain so much of War Pass."

Lane's End Farm, owned by Will Farish, bought into War Pass last year. War Pass will go to stud at Lane's End at the end of his racing career. Robert LaPenta, who bought War Pass as a yearling on Zito's advice, frequently sells those purchases as pinhooks as 2-year-olds. War Pass was not sold last year because he was injured on the eve of a 2-year-old in training sale.

But LaPenta did part with another of his yearling purchases. That colt, now named Court Vision, is the third-ranked prospect on Derby Watch, and one of three Derby Watch runners trained by Bill Mott.

Mott said Court Vision will join Anak Nakal and Cool Coal Man in the Fountain of Youth. Others pointing for that 1 1/8-mile race include Adriano, Elysium Fields, and Monba.

The most compelling race this weekend is the $200,000 Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, which is expected to include Derby Watch members Smooth Air and Z Humor, along with Big Truck and Fierce Wind.

The 1 1/16-mile Sam Davis might have had an even stronger field if it were a graded race. Graded stakes earnings are the tie-breaker if more than 20 horses enter the Derby, which has happened the past four years. The Sam Davis remaining ungraded seems a glaring oversight, considering that Any Given Saturday and Bluegrass Cat won it the past two years. Both went on to win the Grade 1 Haskell, and Bluegrass Cat was second in both the Derby and Belmont in 2006.

"I would be there if it was a graded race," said Pletcher, who trained Any Given Saturday and Bluegrass Cat. "It should be a graded race."

Pletcher, instead, is running Monba in the Fountain of Youth, and Cowboy Cal in the $100,000 Hallandale Beach Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on turf on Saturday at Gulfstream.

On Monday, Denis of Cork is expected to meet Turf War in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes going one mile at Oaklawn Park. Calvin Borel, who had been riding both horses, chose Turf War for the Southwest, so Robby Albarado has been tabbed for Denis of Cork by trainer David Carroll.

In California, where the important stakes this meet at Santa Anita fortuitously fell on days when racing was not canceled, there will be several key races the first part of March.

The Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on March 1 is the next expected start for highly regarded Derby Watch members Colonel John, Crown of Thorns, and El Gato Malo.

Georgie Boy, the dazzling winner of last Sunday's San Vicente Stakes, will make his next start in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 15, trainer Kathy Walsh said.

Georgie Boy's rider situation is uncertain. Garrett Gomez, a longtime friend of Walsh's, was scheduled to ride Georgie Boy in the Sunshine Millions Dash, but Walsh scratched Georgie Boy that day. In the meantime, Gomez's agent, Ron Anderson, took a call with Massive Drama for the San Vicente. When Georgie Boy scratched from the Sunshine Millions to go in the San Vicente, Walsh needed a replacement, and chose Rafael Bejarano.

"It was just one of those situations that comes up," Walsh said. "I need to talk to both riders."

Others pointing for the San Felipe are Bob Black Jack and Into Mischief. Gayego will go there or race one week earlier in the Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows. Yankee Bravo is also possible for the El Camino Real Derby.

On Thursday night, the unbeaten Etched was scheduled to start in the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas at one mile in Dubai. It was to be his first start since being transferred from Darley to Godolphin.