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Wilko will try to win when it counts
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner. Of the 20 horses who won the race from its inception in 1984 through 2003, 11 returned the following spring to race in the Kentucky Derby. None won.
The latest horse who will try to break that streak is Wilko, whose lone win in this country came in the Breeders' Cup. Three losses later, he will seek to shine again when the spotlight is brightest, in the 131st Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Wilko arrived at Churchill Downs on Sunday, merely walked under the shed of Barn 29 on Monday, then got his first tour of the track when jogging on Tuesday morning. After a spring in which he was behind in his training and troubled by quarter cracks, Wilko has trained forwardly since the Santa Anita Derby, and is perceived as a plausible longshot in the Derby.
"So far, so good," trainer Craig Dollase said Tuesday morning. "He came off the track bucking and playing. That's a good sign that the horse is feeling good. I think he likes the cold weather. He probably feels like he's back home."
It was in the high 30's Tuesday morning, much like the chill that Wilko likely encountered during the first part of his career last year in Britain. Wilko raced 10 times in Britain and won twice for trainer Jeremy Noseda before owner Paul Reddam, represented by British bloodstock agent Jamie McCalmont, purchased a majority interest in the colt from Susan Roy.
In his first start in this country, he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
After that race, Wilko was transferred from Noseda to Dollase. In an attempt to win an Eclipse Award, Wilko raced for the 12th time as a 2-year-old in the Hollywood Futurity. But on the eve of that race, he developed a quarter crack in his left front foot. The following afternoon, Wilko finished a close third to Declan's Moon, who won the 2-year-old championship.
Wet weather the first part of the year in Southern California, combined with concern over keeping the left front foot sound, caused Wilko to fall behind in his training. He did not make his first start of the year until March 19, in the San Felipe Stakes. After breaking poorly, Wilko raced four paths wide and emerged with a fresh quarter crack on his right front hoof.
"He didn't get as much out of the San Felipe as I'd have liked," Dollase said. "When he got the quarter crack, it was like, 'What's next?' "
Wilko came back in the Santa Anita Derby and was reunited with Frankie Dettori, the British rider who was aboard for the Breeders' Cup victory. Again Wilko raced four paths wide and finished third, beaten just a half-length.
"After that race, Frankie said, 'He's a race away, mate, a race away,' " Dollase said. "He's making strides forward. Other than not winning, it was the perfect prep. I had question marks after the San Felipe. Now, we're headed in the right direction. He's had three solid works coming into the Derby. Fitnesswise, he's at his peak, and the feet are not an issue."
Dettori has to ride in Britain on Saturday, so Corey Nakatani, Dollase's former brother-in-law, will have the mount in the Derby. Nakatani rode Wilko in both the Hollywood Futurity and San Felipe.
Bailey says Derby 131 might be his last
Jerry Bailey believes he has a better-than-average chance to capture his third Kentucky Derby and said it's "somewhat likely" this could be his final appearance in the Run for the Roses.
Bailey, 47, will ride High Fly on Saturday. Although High Fly has won 5 of 6 starts, including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, he has been overshadowed by his stablemate Bellamy Road. Nick Zito trains both colts, as well as three others in the Derby.
"The question mark may be the distance, but he's got quite a few pluses," Bailey said at a Tuesday morning news conference. "I think chief among them is he wins a lot, and there's a lot to be said for a horse that has a desire to win and finds a way to get it done every time. The positives for me as a rider is he's got multiple moves."
Bailey was aboard High Fly in both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. In the Fountain of Youth, Bailey said, it may have looked like Bandini was gaining on High Fly late, but Bailey said that's because "I actually geared him down a bit the last 100 yards" to save something for the Florida Derby.
Bailey said he liked the way High Fly finished in the final furlong of the Florida Derby.
Bailey, who recently published his autobiography, "Against the Odds: Riding for My Life," said he nearly retired last November. But after giving it more thought, he decided to return for another year. Bailey said he would again wait till December to decide whether he'll ride in 2006.
Bailey is a seven-time Eclipse Award winner and was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1995.
Two more have Zito connection
Nick Zito can hardly believe how he has Derby 131 surrounded. Not only is he training five of the 20 prospective starters, but he also trained the sires of two others: Greeley's Galaxy, by Mr. Greeley, and Don't Get Mad, by Stephen Got Even.
"This is going to be one memorable Derby, I'll tell you," Zito said. "No matter what happens."
Zito trained Mr. Greeley to an outstanding sprint career, capped by a runner-up finish in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park. And he saddled Stephen Got Even to win the 1999 Galleryfurniture.com Stakes (now the Lane's End), after which Stephen Got Even finished 14th as the 5-1 second choice in the 125th Derby.
Both Greeley's Galaxy and Don't Get Mad happen to be owned by B. Wayne Hughes.
"Obviously there's nothing more I'd want than to win the Derby," said Zito. "But if we don't, then I'd be happy for Mr. Hughes because of Mr. Greeley or Stephen Got Even."
Ten in a row for Churchill's bugler
About 12 minutes before the Derby is run Saturday evening, tens of thousands of fans at Churchill will let out a huge cheer for Steve Buttleman - and they don't even know who he is.
Buttleman is the Churchill bugler who alerts fans that Derby horses are stepping onto the racetrack with the traditional playing of "First Call," the short and catchy tune that starts the post parade at racetracks throughout North America. When Buttleman finishes, the University of Louisville marching band begins with "My Old Kentucky Home."
"It's a little nerve-racking doing it for the Derby, but what an honor," said Buttleman. "There's no better race to do it for."
This is the 10th straight Derby in which Buttleman, a 40-year-old native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, will serve as bugler.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Marty McGee