03/31/2008 11:00PM

Who'll make the Derby cut?

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Bob Coglianese
Big Brown jumped to third on the graded earnings list by winning the Florida Derby.

When someone tells you it's not about the money, rest assured, it's about the money. Cash is king, especially when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, because if you've got cash, you're a smash.

Despite the overpowering victory by Big Brown in the Florida Derby on Saturday, and the continued excellence of Pyro this spring, it appears inevitable that more than 20 horses will be entered in the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. With the Derby just a month away, the list of prospective runners in the Derby still numbers more than 40.

If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, the field is determined by And with precious few opportunities remaining to earn graded money before the Derby, there are several prominent horses sitting in precarious positions.

Going into last weekend, Big Brown was the most notable in that shaky spot. He had not earned a dollar in graded stakes money in his first two starts, so the Florida Derby was a make-or-break race for him. He broke the bank. The $600,000 he earned for his dazzling victory - in which Big Brown got a Beyer Speed Figure of 106 - is more than enough to be in the field.

"His race was crazy," Big Brown's trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., said Monday from his barn at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida. "I couldn't even sleep [Sunday] night, too.

"He'll stay here at Palm Meadows until I send him to Churchill. He's not going to go before two weeks out. He'll stay here and breeze here until I know exactly what I want to do. The weather's nice and cool here. I'm not in any hurry to get to Churchill."

Dutrow can sleep tight now, because he's in a comfortable spot with Big Brown. But the trainers and owners of several other horses will have some anxious moments during these last preps. Their horses must earn enough to get into the Derby, while hoping they are not leapfrogged by horses currently below them.

For instance, Denis of Cork and El Gato Malo, both scheduled to race this Saturday, need to get significant amounts of money to move up the ladder. If they do, that will put more pressure on the likes of Visionaire and Z Fortune, who are slated to race on April 12. And the status of where a horse stands on the list might necessitate, in the cases of Big Truck or Tomcito, an additional race - such as the Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19 - between now and the Derby in an attempt to stay in, or move into, the top 20.

"It looks like we'll go straight to the Kentucky Derby unless it turns out we need more money, and then we'll consider running in the Lexington," said Dante Zanelli Jr., the trainer of Florida Derby third-place finisher Tomcito.

Tomcito earned $100,000 in the Florida Derby. His earnings in group stakes races in Peru count toward his Derby total. Zanelli said he believes Tomcito earned more money in Peru than he has been credited with thus far, and that he is "checking with the Peruvian racing board."

"The owners believe he won $80,000," Zanelli said. His total in Peru, according to Equibase - whose data is used by Daily Racing Form - is $32,673.

Smooth Air, who finished second in the Florida Derby, will go to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bennie Stutts said.

Hey Byrn, who was fourth, will remain in Florida. A near-term goal would be the Calder Derby on turf on April 26, trainer Eddie Plesa said.

Fierce Wind, who finished 10th in the 12-horse field, was found to have bled in the race, according to trainer Nick Zito. After the race, Fierce Wind was transferred by owner Halsey Minor to trainer Rick Violette Jr. Minor, who has the brilliant filly Dream Rush with Violette, purchased Fierce Wind privately before the Florida Derby.

Elysium Fields, who finished 11th, "was on the verge of a heat stroke when we got him back to the barn," trainer Barclay Tagg said.

"He was breathing really hard and his temperature was over 105," Tagg said. "He scoped clean and by 10 that evening he looked great. I think he just got overheated.

"We'll take him to Keeneland, play along for a couple of weeks, and maybe think about the Lexington. I was terribly disappointed. He did not have a pebble in his path all the way. This blindsided me."

The loss puts Elysium Fields, heretofore one of the better-regarded Derby prospects, well down the graded stakes earnings list. The Tagg-trained Big Truck is farther up the list, but could be leapfrogged by several horses who are racing this week. Tagg said Big Truck would head to Keeneland to train, too, but Tagg was not sure if Big Truck would race again before the Derby. Earnings may force his hand, though.

Earnings are also going to play a part in the field for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 12. That race is limited to 14 starters, but as of Monday, there were 20 horses under consideration for the race.

If more than 14 enter, the field is determined by earnings in open company. Bob Black Jack has made most of his money in statebred races, so, as of Monday, he was not among the top 14. Because of that, he may instead go to the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland the same day.

Z Fortune, who is safely in the top 14, will be ridden by Robby Albarado in the Arkansas Derby, trainer Steve Asmussen said Monday. Z Fortune worked five furlongs in 1:01.20 on Monday at Oaklawn. Asmussen also worked Pyro on Monday. He was timed in 1:14.60 for six furlongs at Keeneland. His next race is the Blue Grass, which is also expected to include Cool Coal Man, Cowboy Cal, and Visionaire.

Trainer Todd Pletcher on Monday said Monba might skip the Blue Grass and wait one more week for the Lexington.

The three major stakes this Saturday are the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, all at 1 1/8 miles.

Colonel John, who may be a slight favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, had his final work for the race on Monday. Track clockers credited him with a six-furlong time of 1:10.80, though trainer Eoin Harty said Colonel John worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds.

"He only worked five furlongs and then galloped out six," Harty said. "He was his usual self, pretty much breezing all the way around."

Among those scheduled to face Colonel John are El Gato Malo and Yankee Bravo.

The Wood Memorial will feature War Pass, last year's champion 2-year-old, in his first start since suffering his first defeat in the Tampa Bay Derby. Zito said he also would run Anak Nakal in the Wood. Others expected for that race are Court Vision and Tale of Ekati. Court Vision worked a half-mile in 49.60 seconds on Monday at the Payson Park training center in Florida.

Denis of Cork heads the Illinois Derby, which drew a field of seven when entries were taken on Monday. His rivals include Atoned, Golden Spikes, and Z Humor. Golden Spikes worked a half-mile in 48.80 seconds at Calder, and Z Humor worked a half-mile in 50.60 seconds at Payson Park.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, Mary Rampellini, and Mike Welsch