Updated on 09/16/2011 6:49AM

As wide open as it gets, folks

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Siphonic came out of the Santa Catalina with a stiff neck that kept him out of training a few days. He is slated for the March 17 San Felipe.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The favorite for the race lost his last start by 5 1/2 lengths. His conqueror is injured and out of the running. The second choice is spending the winter in Ireland, where poor weather has curtailed his training. More than half the horses among the top 25 have serious questions regarding their ability to handle 1 1/4 miles. And most of the rest are so inexperienced, or unaccomplished, that trying to predict who will come to the fore is a daunting task.

Welcome to the initial installment of Derby Watch 2002, everyone!

It is exactly 78 days until the Kentucky Derby will be run on May 4 at Churchill Downs, and the list of contenders is far more inscrutable than in recent years. The nature of training horses in this country has changed so dramatically in the last 20 years that bettors trying to dive into this weekend's Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager are evaluating horses with precious few starts. *, the 5-1 favorite on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, has raced just five times, and is not scheduled to race again until the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 17.

The role of Derby favorite, according to David Hofmans, who trains Siphonic, is "a nice position to be in, but it can change at any minute."

The biggest advantage, Hofmans has found, is that he can run in races he prefers. Last year, Hofmans trained Millennium Wind, and sent that colt to Louisiana and Kentucky for Derby preps to avoid Derby favorite Point Given. "It's nice to run in the races you plan to be in, to not have to worry about ducking anybody," Hofmans said.

This year's quest begins in earnest this weekend. Several leading 3-year-olds will be in action, both here at Gulfstream Park and at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park is expected to draw a field of eight, including Booklet and Harlan's Holiday, who finished first and second in last month's Holy Bull Stakes. At Fair Grounds on Sunday, Kentucky Jockey Club winner * meets Lecomte Handicap winner Easyfromthegitgo in the Risen Star Stakes. Both the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star are at 1 1/16 miles.

There are 405 horses nominated to this year's Triple Crown. If any of them can sweep all three races, they will receive a $5 million bonus from Visa, the Triple Crown's sponsor, as well as become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

The action heats up next month, with races such as the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and San Felipe. Hofmans had planned on giving his colt a break after last month's Santa Catalina. But even if a break had not been scheduled, Siphonic would have received one anyway. He stumbled badly at the start of the Santa Catalina before finishing second, and missed a few days of training immediately thereafter because "he had a severely stiff neck," Hofmans said Wednesday from Hollywood Park. "He had a chiropractor, acupuncture, and my vet worked on him," Hofmans said. "There's no sign of stiffness now."

At least Siphonic is doing better than Santa Catalina winner Labamta Babe, who will miss the Derby with an injured suspensory ligament.

Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg, the 6-1 second choice after an undefeated 2-year-old campaign, has returned to Ireland, where trainer Aidan O'Brien reported, "The weather has been bad here, and we really haven't been doing too much."

"It won't be until the end of February that we'll have any feel for how he's doing," O'Brien said. "We'll wait until the spring and good weather before we make any decisions as to what our plans are. There are several options that will have to be discussed."

Among the options are whether to come to the United States for the Derby, or remain in Europe and point for a race like the English 2000 Guineas. The Guineas is at one mile, a distance that might better suit Johannesburg than the Derby's 1 1/4 miles, and it is run the same day as the Derby.

In addition to Johannesburg, there are a number of Derby prospects wintering overseas, most notably a 17-horse contingent owned by Dubai-based Godolphin Racing Inc.

Tempera, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has been nominated to both the Derby and the May 3 Kentucky Oaks. Simon Crisford, the racing manager for Godolphin, reports that Tempera is scheduled to make her first start of the year against fillies in the United Arab Emirates 1000 Guineas, at one mile, on

March 14 at Nad Al Sheba racecourse in Dubai. Essence of Dubai, who won last year's Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, is scheduled to run in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 28, Crisford said.

Distance questions hound many highly regarded 3-year-olds of this crop, some of whom already were exposed at age 2. Officer, for instance, did not even make the Derby Watch's top 25, even though he was one of this country's most accomplished 2-year-olds last year. But his poor performances at the end of the year, when he tried to negotiate two turns, coupled with a lengthy layoff that only recently saw him return to training at Santa Anita, make him seem ill-suited for the Derby.

Came Home, who was a dazzling winner of the San Vicente Stakes, and Werblin, who finished third in that race, are other talented colts who may find 10 furlongs beyond their range. Both will run next in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on March 2, a race that is also slated for Hollywood Futurity runner-up Fonz's.

"A mile is fine," said Came Home's trainer, Paco Gonzalez. "We'll see in this race if he can go farther."

Eduardo Inda, the trainer of Werblin, conceded that that son of Unbridled's Song "is not bred to go far."

"But his next race is only a mile, so we'll see," Inda said.

Shug McGaughey, the trainer of Maybry's Boy, is stretching that horse around two turns for the first time in the Fountain of Youth. But McGaughey is not convinced two turns will play to Maybry's Boy's strengths.

By contrast, McGaughey believes Saarland, last year's Remsen Stakes winner, is a legitimate, two-turn horse. The trouble with Saarland is that he fell behind in his training last month when Gulfstream's track was deep and tiring. "I didn't know where I was with him," McGaughey said. McGaughey wants to get an allowance race into Saarland at Gulfstream, then head to New York for races such as the one-mile Gotham Stakes on March 17, and 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial on April 11.

The road to the Derby is usually clogged with runners from trainers like Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, Elliott Walden, and Nick Zito, but Baffert and Lukas, in particular, have precious little this year, despite nominating 19 (Lukas) and 14 (Baffert) horses to the Triple Crown. Lukas does not have one horse worthy of inclusion in the top 25.

When a reporter called Baffert to ask about his Derby contenders, Baffert replied, "You've got the wrong barn."

Baffert's lone representative among the top 25 is Danthebluegrassman, who comes off successive stakes wins at Golden Gate Fields. In his last start, Danthebluegrassman beat the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained pair of Cappuchino and U S S Tinosa, both of whom subsequently won stakes races.

"They both ran well," Hollendorfer said of last weekend's stakes victories. "At this stage, I'm pleased with their progress."

This year, he's ahead of the curve.

DERBY UPDATE

WHO'S HOT

Trainer Kenny McPeek, with Repent and Harlan's Holiday, has two of the top four horses among the Derby Watch's top 25. Three of the top 20 horses - Johannesburg, King's Consul, and Tempera - are wintering overseas, an unprecedented number.

WHO'S NOT

Familiar Triple Crown training stalwarts Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas are in dire straits right now. Baffert has just one horse (Danthebluegrassman) on the list, Lukas none. Of particular note here is the Baffert-trained Officer. Although he is nominated to the Triple Crown, he only recently returned to training, and the Derby Watch board of directors felt he should be left off the list until he proves the Derby is an attainable goal. Bobby Frankel lost top contender Labamta Babe to injury after his win over Siphonic in the Santa Catalina.

ON THE BUBBLE

Because this year's crop is so inexperienced and largely unaccomplished, a number of horses could have filled out the final five spots. Those who just barely missed the cut include D'Coach, Canadian Grade 1 winner Changeintheweather, recent Gulfstream allowance winners Personal Reward and Speed Hunter, and Mayakovsky, who showed much promise last year at 2 before heading to the sidelines. He is scheduled to return to action next month at Santa Anita.

Derby Watch Chart*

* Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.