04/09/2002 11:00PM

Sunday Break: Wood will tell

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - As they struggle to deal with injuries, illnesses and setbacks of one sort or another, the emphasis in the 128th Kentucky Derby on May 4 is squarely on training.

Many of these problems can be overcome by knowledgeable training. Some can not, and the knowledgeable trainer recognizes the situation and acts accordingly. Neil Drysdale has faced a variety of challenges in connection with Derbies past and has met most successfully. That is one of the reasons he was elected to the Hall of Fame, and is also one of the reasons Sunday Break is under so much scrutiny as a Derby candidate.

Drysdale's work with the high-spirited Fusaichi Pegasus to win the 2000 Kentucky Derby was outstanding. That colorful colt made his every excursion from the barn to the track a thrilling experience, but Drysdale was not distracted by these antics. He had a talented individual in his care and on Derby Day produced him at his best.

He had an even more talented colt named A.P. Indy in his care in 1992. He saddled him to win the Santa Anita Derby, and brought him to Churchill Downs in peak form. On the eve of the Derby A.P. Indy went wrong, and even though owner Tomonori Tsurumaki had flown from Tokyo to see his colt race, Drysdale had him scratched. There was probably a way he could have raced, but it would have been the wrong way. Drysdale was patient, brought the colt back several weeks later to win the Peter Pan, and then won the Belmont Stakes, beating some of the same horses who ran in the Derby. A.P. Indy, under Drysdale's guidance, scored other notable triumphs and was voted Horse of the Year.

The Japanese-bred Sunday Break, who races for the North Hills Management organization of industrialist Koji Maeda, was a late development. He had two starts last fall, won his maiden at Santa Anita in January, and then won in allowance company. His last start was in overnight company at Aqueduct and he won despite some erratic conduct in the drive. He runs Saturday in the Wood Memorial, a race that will determine his Derby status.

"Sunday Break is coming along well and I'm pleased with him," Drysdale says. "He is a very competitive horse and that was the problem the other day. He was just sitting there behind horses and lost interest. He should have been ridden. Another horse came to him on the inside, and he immediately reacted to the challenge and went in to win."

Does Sunday Break have sufficient experience to win the Derby?

"I think so," Drysdale said. "We'll find out for sure in the Wood Memorial."

Owner-breeder Maeda, chief executive officer of the Aitec Corporation, has 120 horses in training in Japan and has 50 broodmares in production at his farm in Hokkaido. Catequil, dam of Sunday Break, is one of the best. Her filly, Phalaenopsis, was champion 2-year-old filly in Japan. Her half-brother, Sunday Break, may be ready to add to the family's glory.

Drysdale may have a second challenger for the Derby in the German-bred Flying Dash, who won the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes here last week.

Flying Dash won two of four starts, all on the grass of course, in Germany and France last season, was purchased after a Group 2 victory at Baden-Baden by Fusaichi Pegasus's owner, Fusao Sekaguchi, and sent to Drysdale. The Transylvania, at a mile on the grass, was his first start since August 31, but he had been skillfully prepared and finished strongly from off the pace to win by more than two lengths.

"I thought he ran very well," Drysdale commented. "He showed talent. He's a big, strong, good-looking individual but he has never raced on dirt. He trains well on dirt but there is a difference between training and racing. To run in the Derby, he'd have to have a race on the dirt."

With the Derby just three weeks away, Drysdale's options are limited. The obvious choice is the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth here next weekend. It will be interesting to follow the fortunes of this international colt as he bids for a Kentucky Derby berth in the hands of a master horseman.