04/15/2008 11:00PM

Worthy or not, it's hard to say no to Derby

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There was a time when most people ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby not because they could, but because they should. But the rule that caps the Derby field at 20 runners, hatched following the overzealousness of trainers and owners who entered 22 horses in the race in 1981, has seemingly had the opposite effect to which it was intended. Now the prevailing attitude is, if there's room for my horse, why not run?

Starting in 1982, 20 horses have been entered in the Derby 11 times, but the pace has accelerated the last decade, with fields of 20 entered in the Derby the past four years, and five of the past six, and seven of the past nine. Each of those streaks seems certain to continue this year, with well more than 20 horses still clamoring for a shot at running in the Derby on May 3.

How many of them truly belong? Graded stakes earnings gleaned at age 2, or strictly against fillies, or in foreign countries, count just as much as the Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, or Wood Memorial, benefitting horses such as Z Humor, Eight Belles, and Tomcito.

"There's one winner, and the rest, no one remembers," said Eric Guillot, the trainer of Salute the Sarge. "There are 19 losers, and 15 who don't belong, and we might be one of them."

Salute the Sarge earned all but $46,800 of his graded stakes cash last year at age 2, when he won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship and Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, and was second in the Del Mar Futurity and the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. He has had one start this year, and has yet to race beyond 1 1/16 miles, 330 yards shorter than the Derby.

Yet because his bankroll puts him solidly in the Derby field, he remains a viable candidate for the Derby. He will get a chance to prove he belongs on Saturday, when he competes in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. The 1 1/16-mile Lexington is the last graded stakes race for Derby contenders. Last dance, last chance.

"I think he'll get a mile a sixteenth," Guillot said. "Farther along would be a question."

The Lexington will be seen live during a one-hour telecast on ESPN2, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. The telecast will also include live coverage from Pimlico of the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes, which often produces a runner for the Preakness Stakes, to be run on May 17.

The Lexington drew a field of 11 on Wednesday, with Salute the Sarge in post 2, just outside of Atoned. Racecar Rhapsody drew post 5, and Big Glen is in post 9.

Guillot trains for Michael Moreno, a Louisiana oilman who has poured millions of dollars into bloodstock, buying expensive racehorses and some of the choicest broodmares through his Southern Equine Stable.

"Oil's at $112 a barrel. I want it to go to $300 for my owner," Guillot said.

Guillot and Moreno will not make a decision on the Derby until after the Lexington, but Guillot admitted Moreno has been going back and forth on the pros and cons of running.

"One day he wants to put on the white hats and drink the mint jubilees," Guillot said, "and the next day he says we don't belong in the Derby."

Salute the Sarge was a good 2-year-old, but he has yet to win around two turns. Because of sore sesamoids, he was given a lengthy layoff over the winter and has raced just once this year, winning the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita on March 29.

If Salute the Sarge runs in the Derby, he will go from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/4 miles in five weeks.

But at least he's in good form. Other horses who earned plenty of graded cash as 2-year-olds, such as Anak Nakal and Massive Drama, are still under consideration for the Derby despite poor performances this spring. But they have the money, and in a year where few horses have proven consistent, there are eternal hopes in the spring.

The gregarious, fast-talking Guillot, whose appetite for food, women, and fun are all large, put it amusingly, though bluntly.

"A lot of people deny it, but they are jesters," Guillot said, referring to the horses, "and the trainers and the owners are the kings and queens.

"If he wants to go to the Derby, or if he wants to go to the moon, I don't care," Guillot said of Moreno. "The question is if we want to be the jester for the kings and queens."

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

Jockey Edgar Prado chose to ride Adriano, the winner of the Lane's End Stakes, in the Derby instead of Monba, on whom Prado won the Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday at Keeneland.

Prado also won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct earlier this month with Tale of Ekati, but on Tuesday gave up the mount on that colt, and said he would decide between Adriano and Monba.

Adriano is trained by Graham Motion, Monba by Todd Pletcher.

Bob Frieze, Prado's agent, said it was "a tough decision."

"We went back and forth, back and forth," Frieze said from Keeneland, where Prado is currently riding. "We won on Adriano in the Lane's End before we rode the other two. We felt obligated toward Graham. We had told Graham to let Edgar work the horse first, then we'd make a decision."

Adriano worked a half-mile at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, with Prado aboard.

"Obviously I'm thrilled, not only that Edgar's riding him, but that, in doing so, he's endorsing the horse," Motion said. "One of the reasons we took him over to Churchill Downs from Keeneland to work him on Sunday was for Edgar to see how he went and to help him make his decision."

Pletcher said no decision had yet been made on who would ride Monba.

Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Tale of Ekati, has not named a Derby rider for that colt, either, though Eibar Coa has been riding another Tagg trainee, Big Truck.

WHO'S HOT: There are five newcomers to the top 25 of Derby Watch this week, but only Cowboy Cal, the Blue Grass runner-up, got there based on performance. The others - Anak Nakal, Eight Belles, Halo Najib, and Indian Sun - were added because of their rank on the graded stakes earnings list. They might not be as talented as some of the horses they have replaced this week, but, as of now, they are farther up the earnings list. The top 25 needs to mirror that list, since it will be the criteria used to determine the Derby field if more than 20 horses enter the race, as expected. Cowboy Cal is 20-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Eight Belles is 40-1, with Anak Nakal, Halo Najib, and Indian Sun all 60-1. Gayego, the Arkansas Derby winner, is down to 15-1 after being 40-1 a week ago. Monba, the Blue Grass winner, had his price cut to 20-1 after also being 40-1 last week

WHO'S NOT: Atoned, Blackberry Road, El Gato Malo, Liberty Bull, and My Pal Charlie all were dropped from the list, though Atoned could be put right back on should he move into the top 20 with a good performance in the Lexington Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland. The other four are either off the Derby trail, or lacking sufficient earnings to make the field. Pyro, 9-2 last week, was mildly punished by Watchmaker for his dull try in the Blue Grass. He is now 6-1.

ON THE BUBBLE: In addition to Atoned, the Lexington is a critical race in terms of earnings for Racecar Rhapsody, who needs to win to get into the top 20; a second-place finish would likely leave him on the outside looking in.