02/05/2008 12:00AM

As usual, field opens as Pool 1 favorite

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A new calendar is one sign, and the running of the first few prep races is another. Still another sign that the Kentucky Derby chase has begun is the first of three pools in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which opens Thursday at racetracks and wagering outlets throughout North America.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito has seen the signs many times before, having won the Derby twice (1991, 1994) while also tying the record for the most Derby starters (five) in 2005. This year, Zito is once again stepping onto the Derby trail with a high profile, this time as the trainer of War Pass, the unbeaten 2-year-old champion and a co-favorite among the 23 separate betting interests in Pool 1 of the Derby futures offered by Churchill Downs.

War Pass is rated by Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia as a 12-1 chance in Pool 1, the same as Pyro and Court Vision. As usual, the field - the 24th or "all others" option - is a solid morning-line favorite at 5-2. The field has always closed as the Pool 1 favorite since the first Derby Future Wager in 1999.

War Pass, a winner of all four of his starts in front-running fashion, figures as a horse of particular interest for 2008 futures bettors in light of how he was one-dimensional in dominating his class at 2. Nonetheless, Zito said he believes futures bettors playing against War Pass will be doing so at their own peril.

"First thing is, you start from the top," Zito said earlier this week from south Florida. "He's still the champ - that's one good reason for people to like him, right or wrong? Second thing is, he's a fabulous horse. If he keeps doing well, they've got him to beat. Obviously things change before the first Saturday in May, but maybe we'll get a break with this Derby."

Zito reiterated that he intends to enter War Pass in an unspecified prep race later this month, then follow with the March 15 Tampa Bay Derby and the April 5 Wood Memorial.

"That's if everything goes good," said Zito. "It's always good to have a backup plan, and we do. As everybody knows, getting to the Derby depends on how things go day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. So far, though, everything has been great for War Pass."

Just behind War Pass, Pyro, and Court Vision among the individual entries for Pool 1 are four horses listed at 15-1: El Gato Malo, Etched, Majestic Warrior, and Z Humor.

Meanwhile, the field also is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in Pool 1 of the Oaks Future Wager, which runs concurrently with the Derby futures.

After the field, the early Oaks co-favorites are Indian Blessing and Country Star at 8-1 each, followed by Proud Spell and Pure Clan at 12-1 each, and By the Light at 15-1.

One last-minute change was made to the Oaks field Tuesday morning when More Happy was replaced by Eight Belles. Trainer Bob Baffert informed Churchill officials that More Happy would not make the Oaks.

After the field was made official, owner Samantha Siegel said Tuesday evening that her filly By the Light, winner of the Delta Princess Stakes, was to have ankle surgery and would not be ready for the Oaks.

As usual, there will be three wagering periods of four days each for the wagers. Pool 2 is set for March 6-9 and Pool 3 from April 3-6. All pools will open at noon Eastern on a Thursday, with the Derby pools closing at 6 p.m. on a Sunday and the Oaks pools closing a half-hour later.

Results are based on the 134th Derby, which is set for May 3, and the 134th Oaks, to be run the previous day. The parimutuel wagers are win only, with no refunds, although Churchill scratches horses known to be eliminated from contention. Takeout is 16 percent.

Each Oaks pool typically gets only about 15 percent of the handle that the Derby pool attracts. Last year, the combined handle on the three Derby futures pools was $1,365,424, compared with $193,086 for the Oaks.

This will be the 10th year for the Derby Future Wager, and the fifth for three pools of Oaks futures. A single Oaks pool was first used in 2003.

Lineups are selected by the three-man committee of John Asher of Churchill and Brad Free and Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form.