04/18/2006 11:00PM

Trainers on bubble cross their fingers

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Trainer Todd Pletcher wants to run Sunriver, but he'll need some defections.

Trainer David Hofmans does not have a horse running in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, but he has a huge rooting interest.

"I want Like Now to win," Hofmans said Wednesday. "He's already ahead of us. If anyone else wins, we'll drop down."

Hofmans trains Sacred Light, who most recently finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby after stumbling badly at the start. Hofmans would very much like to run Sacred Light in the Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs, but if entries were taken now, Sacred Light would not get in because of insufficient earnings in graded-stakes races. If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, as expected, the field will be determined by earnings in graded stakes. Sacred Light is 25th on the list, with $97,300.

The Lexington and next week's Withers Stakes at Aqueduct are the last graded-stakes races to be run preceding the Derby; Churchill's Derby Trial is no longer graded. With the Withers being only one week out and in New York, the Lexington is pretty much the last chance to pad a bankroll.

Several horses are making a last-chance bid at the Derby by running in the Lexington, most notably Greeley's Legacy, Hemingway's Key, and Showing Up. Those three are all behind Sacred Light on the earnings list. Like Now is the only horse in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington who is already above Sacred Light.

After the Lexington, the only way a horse like Sacred Light or the Todd Pletcher-trained Sunriver could get into the Derby would be for there to be enough defections among those above them to put them in the top 20. The trainers of Mister Triester and Superfly have said their horses are very doubtful for the Derby. If they come out, that would move Sacred Light and Sunriver up the list, but not far enough.

"We're trying to get in the race if we can, but it's out of our hands," Hofmans said.

Hofmans said he quickly dismissed any thought of running Sacred Light in the Lexington. Hofmans already had a bad experience at Keeneland this meet with his 3-year-old filly Balance, who, like Sacred Light, has a late-running style. Balance finished third as the 1-2 favorite in the Ashland.

"Because of the horse's running style, even though he needs the money, it just didn't seem like the right thing to do, especially after watching First Samurai and Bluegrass Cat and Balance there," Hofmans said.

Pletcher also decided against running in the Lexington with Florida Derby third-place finisher Sunriver, who is just above Sacred Light on the earnings list with $100,000. Pletcher already has enough graded earnings with his other Derby candidates, Bluegrass Cat and Keyed Entry, but he would also like to run Sunriver.

"I'll be watching the Lexington with interest to see what happens," Pletcher said. "Some guys in the race are saying they might not run back in the Derby if they win. We're at the point now where not that many things have to happen to get us into the 20-horse field."

This has been a disappointing spring for Pletcher, who had 38 horses nominated to the Derby. Two months ago, Bluegrass Cat was preparing for his 3-year-old debut and was considered one of the elite Derby contenders based on his victory last fall in the Remsen Stakes. He has won just once, at Tampa Bay, in three starts since.

Keyed Entry won the Hutcheson Stakes in fast time in early February, but since has failed in his two tries going two turns. "A mile and an eighth appears too long," jockey Edgar Prado said when he got off Keyed Entry after the Wood Memorial. Prado quickly declared Barbaro as his Derby mount.

Sunriver was not considered as good as either Bluegrass Cat or Keyed Entry, but, because of his stablemates' hiccups, Sunriver might now be on a par with them. But is that because he has gotten better, or because the others don't look as good as they once did?

Pletcher said he is going to train all three of his colts "like they're going to run in the Derby," and then make decisions on each the Monday preceding the Derby. Asked why he thinks Sunriver deserves a chance in the Derby, Pletcher said, "He ran a big race in the Florida Derby, and he's improving.

"At Gulfstream, you had to be used to establish position," Pletcher said. "I think he'll appreciate being able to settle into a race a little bit. The Derby should suit his style."

Sunriver certainly has the foundation for the Derby. His last five races have all been at 1 1/8 miles. And he ran well in all of them, with the exception of the Holy Bull, in which he was running back in three weeks, over a sloppy surface, and without regular rider John Velazquez.

"After the Holy Bull, we had to take a step back," Pletcher said. "If he'd have run well in the Holy Bull, and then gone on to the Fountain of Youth before the Florida Derby, maybe we wouldn't be on the outside looking in."