03/13/2008 12:00AM

War Pass plan moves forward

Eleanor Gustafson
War Pass faces six rivals in the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Nick Zito laid out a three-step plan earlier this winter that would have juvenile champion War Pass at his peak for the Kentucky Derby. And except for a slight hiccup that set him back a week in late January, at this point War Pass remains right on the boss's schedule.

Step one of Zito's plan, a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park in February, resulted in an easy victory. Step two comes Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs when War Pass stretches out a little farther and faces a little stiffer competition in the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

War Pass isn't the only Eclipse Award winner on Saturday's program. Dreaming of Anna, the 2006 Juvenile Filly champ, will again take on Grade 1 winner Lear's Princess in the Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes, which shares top billing on the undercard along with the Grade 3 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

Zito is hoping War Pass will follow in the footsteps of last year's reigning juvenile champion, Street Sense, who used a game victory over Any Given Saturday in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby as a stepping-stone to his eventual triumph in the Kentucky Derby.

"My main focus with him leading up to the Derby is to try to get his fitness level where we need it on the big day," Zito said. "Some might feel these first two races were unconventional prepwise, but we already know what he is. He doesn't have to show he belongs. He's already the champion."

Zito said that War Pass, who has led throughout to win each of his five career starts, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, came out of his 3-year-old debut in good order.

"Obviously, there will be questions asked as we move along," Zito said. "This race will be tougher than the last, although I wouldn't want too hard a race in Tampa. When we go to the Wood, it will be a different story, although right now I'm not looking past Saturday since I've learned in this business you never know what can happen from day to day."

Zito's confidence in War Pass, a son of Cherokee Run owned by Robert LaPenta, has grown with each successive victory.

"You know me, I'm always optimistic, although this game will humble kings," Zito said. "But how can I not be confident in a horse like this? He's just an athlete. There isn't an ounce of fat on him and hasn't been since the first day I got him as a 2-year-old. He's the kind of horse who is laid-back most of the time, but as soon as he knows something's going on, he gets geared up."

War Pass figures to be geared up when he steps into the starting gate against six rivals in the Tampa Bay Derby. The field includes Atoned, second in the Grade 2 Remsen in his 2-year-old finale; Big Truck, runner-up in Tampa's Sam F. Davis Stakes; and Make Me Zach, a surprisingly impressive allowance winner last month at Gulfstream Park.

A locally based trio of longshots - Cigar Man, Gentleman James, and Dynamic Wayne - completes the lineup.

Atoned has not started since finishing an unlucky second behind the highly regarded Court Vision in the Remsen on Nov. 24. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Atoned has been working steadily for his return at Palm Beach Downs.

"I wanted to give him a break after the Remsen, so he went to the farm in Aiken after that race," said Pletcher, who nearly upset Street Sense with Any Given Saturday in the 2007 Tampa Derby. "He wasn't quite ready to come back in the Sam Davis, so this has been our target all along. Obviously, you don't necessarily search out the 2-year-old champ for your comeback, but I can't worry about who is in the field. At this point, you have to just train your own horse."

Pletcher acknowledged Atoned probably could have won the Remsen with a luckier trip.

"He had bad luck on the first turn, and surprisingly he was able to recover and perform as well as he did that day, although Court Vision had trouble as well in the race, so it's hard to say who was best," Pletcher said. "Right now, this race is our only objective. I haven't picked out another spot beyond this. At the moment, everything is a possibility."

Big Truck was beaten just a half-length by the Zito-trained Fierce Wind in the Sam Davis.

"He ran well over the track, and I just hope he moves forward," said Big Truck's trainer, Barclay Tagg. "Obviously, you hate to have to face a horse like War Pass, but if you think you only have one horse to beat, you take the chance. If you feel like there's three or four to beat, then you should look for an easier spot."