04/21/2008 12:00AM

War Pass to miss Derby with injury

Bob Coglianese

Nick Zito often trains by instinct, and his instincts had been on high alert for the past week with War Pass. After War Pass initially came out of his gutsy runner-up effort in the Wood Memorial on April 5 at Aqueduct in good shape, and then traveled to Kentucky soon thereafter, Zito was not happy with the way War Pass had acted the past week at Churchill Downs. His instincts told him something was amiss, and late Friday he found it.

Zito announced early Saturday morning that X-rays taken Friday afternoon revealed a tiny fracture in a sesamoid bone in the left front leg of War Pass. The fracture, which Zito described as "very small," has very big ramifications. It removes War Pass from the May 3 Kentucky Derby, changes the complexion of the race because of the defection of a key front-runner, and improves the position of everyone on the graded stakes earnings list, since War Pass was ranked first, with $1.47 million.

"It's just been an uphill battle. It's been a tough winter," Zito said from Churchill Downs.

War Pass had a smooth 2-year-old campaign, with four wins in four starts, including a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile that brought him the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. This year, though, War Pass had his 3-year-old debut delayed in Florida by a brief bout of colic, beat a soft field in his comeback race at Gulfstream, then finished last in the Tampa Bay Derby before a gut-wrenching effort in the Wood.

"The Wood was very tough on him," Zito said. "I think the injury must have happened in the Wood. He had a few good days when he first got to Kentucky, but then I had to back off on him."

Zito said "there's no question" War Pass can return from this injury and race again. War Pass is owned by Robert LaPenta, but his breeding rights have been sold to Lane's End Farm, where War Pass will stand at stud at the end of his racing career.

"Mr. LaPenta and Lane's End have been extremely supportive," Zito said.

War Pass had surgery on his left front ankle as a 2-year-old, which kept him out of a 2-year-old-in-training sale at which LaPenta had intended to sell him. Zito said that surgery was in a different area from the current injury.

Zito said the length of time War Pass would be off, and other possible treatment, would not be decided until noted surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage, of the Rood and Riddle clinic in Lexington, Ky., reviewed War Pass's X-rays on Sunday.

Zito still has two candidates for the Derby in Anak Nakal and Cool Coal Man. Julien Leparoux has picked up the mount on Cool Coal Man, replacing Kent Desormeaux, who has opted to ride Big Brown, the current Derby favorite.

Smooth Air has unorthodox work

Big Brown isn't the only Kentucky Derby contender still working in south Florida. So, too, is Smooth Air, runner-up to Big Brown in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 29.

Working over his home base at Calder Race Course on Saturday, Smooth Air went seven furlongs in 1:26.02, according to Daily Racing Form. The work was orchestrated in somewhat unconventional fashion by trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. and exercise rider Jodi Gelb, who broke Smooth Air off at the 6 1/2-furlong pole and breezed him a sixteenth of a mile past the wire to the 7 1/2-furlong pole before galloping out a mile around the turn in 1:40.92 seconds.

"It was a very impressive work," said Stutts. "I always work horses past the wire. It teaches them not to stop at the finish line."

Saturday's work, which came over a chewed-up racetrack some 45 minutes after the renovation break, was Smooth Air's second since the Florida Derby. He worked a mile in 1:41.17 at Calder on April 13.

"When this horse won the seven-furlong Hutcheson, he had worked a mile twice before the race," said Stutts. "In other words, he was the fittest horse in there that day. My father taught me if horses don't blow in the morning they damn sure will blow in the afternoon. This horse galloped a mile and one-eighth and went from a 15 clip to a 13 clip the last half-mile to set up that mile work last weekend.

Smooth Air was to have flown to Louisville on Sunday. Stutts was going to accompany him on the flight.

"I'm not taking him out of my sight," said the 70-year old Stutts, who will be participating in his first Kentucky Derby. "I've never flown with a horse before, but I'm prepared to go with this one."

Stutts said Smooth Air would work an easy five furlongs at Churchill Downs on Sunday.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch