04/25/2004 11:00PM

Tapit's rider high on first Derby try

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Tammy Faulkner/Tapeta Farms
Kentucky Derby-bound Tapit, and rider Ramon Dominguez, course the landscape at trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in North East, Md.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ramon Dominguez is trying to become the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby with his first Derby mount since fellow Marylander Ronnie Franklin did it aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979.

After guiding Wood Memorial winner Tapit through his final Derby workout Monday at trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in North East, Md., Dominguez is feeling more confident he can pull it off.

For the second time in six days, Dominguez worked Tapit in company with three stablemates. Tapit began his move behind four workmates and finished a length in front, according to Dickinson. Tapit was timed in 1:06.80 for the five-furlong move, done over the all-weather dirt surface, which is on an incline. Last Wednesday, Tapit worked on the turf.

"I'm very confident," Dominguez said Monday by phone from his Maryland home. "It's hard for me to tell how much the horse has changed prior to the Wood Memorial because I don't get on him every day. But I know they are very excited about the changes he has made, and they seem to feel he's very fit and ready this time. I got a lot of confidence in Michael getting him ready. Hopefully, he'll be a step above where he was in the Wood and he'll be very competitive in the Derby."

Dickinson didn't think Tapit was fit enough to win the Wood because he was just getting over a lung infection diagnosed after the Florida Derby in March.

Tapit is scheduled to ship to Kentucky by plane from BWI Airport on Wednesday.

Jeff Lukas returns to racetrack

It has been a decade since Jeff Lukas was nearly killed when trampled by the colt Tabasco Cat in the stable area at Santa Anita. Since then, Lukas has undergone extensive rehabilitation, worked at a farm in Florida, and then left the horse business for a time to live with his mother in Wisconsin.

But Lukas has returned to the racetrack. Two weeks ago, he started working anew for his father, D. Wayne Lukas, for whom Lukas was the top assistant before his near-fatal accident.

"When my dad was about to leave California at the end of Santa Anita, he asked if I wanted to come back to the track," Lukas said Monday morning at Churchill Downs. "I went and visited my kids in California" - they live there with his ex-wife, Linda - "then came here with him. I'm not working in the same capacity I was before, but it's great to be back."

Lukas was his father's right-hand man during their stable's rise to prominence in the 1980's. Tabasco Cat ran over Lukas when he got loose in the stable area during training hours. Tabasco Cat turned out to be one of the best horses of that generation. He won both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1994.

Lukas did not bounce back quickly. He was in a coma and came dangerously close to losing his life because of swelling in his brain. But he was remarkably upbeat on Monday, remarking over how many familiar names and faces he was seeing during Derby Week.

Song of the Sword: Blinker tinkering

Though Song of the Sword has raced in blinkers in all five of his career starts, trainer Jennifer Pedersen is considering making an adjustment for the Derby.

Pedersen believes that Song of the Sword ran hesitantly when horses passed him on his outside in the Lexington Stakes, a race in which he finished third but was beaten only a neck for second. Thus, Pedersen has opened up Song of the Sword's blinkers and has trained him with horses to his outside.

"Hopefully, this time he'll decide to try," said Pedersen, who is training Song of the Sword at Keeneland. "I believe he'll run big."

Pedersen said Song of the Sword was scheduled to van from Keeneland to Churchill on Tuesday. Song of the Sword will be Pedersen's first Derby starter.

Friends Lake braves the elements

Trainer John Kimmel had considered completing Friends Lake's major training for the Kentucky Derby at his winter headquarters at Payson Park, Fla., and not shipping to Churchill Downs until Derby Week. But he was concerned about the possibility of losing valuable training time in Florida because of rain.

So Kimmel put Friends Lake, a New York-bred who hasn't raced since winning the March 13 Florida Derby, on a van for Kentucky last Tuesday, and scheduled his final Derby workout for Sunday morning. Unfortunately, he encountered more of a monsoon than a rainstorm when Friends Lake came onto the track to breeze five furlongs under regular exercise rider Amanda Roxborough.

"That was awful. It couldn't have been worse," Kimmel said, after Friends Lake was safely back in the barn after going a very conservative five furlongs in 1:03.06. "The best thing about the work is that it's over and the horse did just fine. He handled the slop well and came back in good shape."

Kimmel said he waited until 6:30 a.m. to bring Friends Lake out to the track after having administered Lasix earlier that morning.

"I like to give my horses at least an hour and a half after they've received Lasix; otherwise they tend to be uncomfortable or even wind up urinating while out on the racetrack," said Kimmel, a former veterinarian. "We had a driving rainstorm from the time we left the barn until the time we returned. The racetrack was soaked and full of puddles. I was hoping to have him go in around 1:01. Instead, I told Amanda just guide him around and squeeze him a little at the eighth pole to make him finish. Naturally, I'd have liked to have worked over a dry track, but he's very fit. I can't do anything to get this horse tired, so this was not a remarkable thing for him."

Violette's so hot, he's too hot

Trainer Rick Violette has a lot in common with Kimmel. He, too, brings a New York-bred, Read the Footnotes, into the Derby off a seven-week layoff. And he also decided to leaving his winter headquarters in Florida a week early to get in one work over the Churchill Downs racetrack before the Derby.

Fortunately for Violette, however, he had scheduled Read the Footnotes's final Derby breeze for Monday and was blessed with a fast racetrack. Read the Footnotes went an easy half-mile in 48.35 seconds under exercise rider Morna McDowall.

"Everything has worked out perfectly over the last seven weeks, from his workout schedule to the flight here Friday to the fact we had a fast track to work over this morning," said Violette.

Violette has even been perfect on the racetrack of late, winning with five consecutive starters at three different racetracks over a four-day span this past week. But he is wary of the weight that streak might bring if it lasts into Derby Day.

"I'm not pressing my luck to make it six in a row in the Kentucky Derby," said Violette. "If I have to run my stable pony in some stakes race this week I'm going to break that streak before Read the Footnotes runs in the Derby."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman and Mike Welsch