With his Tampa Bay Derby victory, Limehouse "showed once again he's one of the toughest, most consistent 3-year-olds in the country."

With his Tampa Bay Derby victory, Limehouse "showed once again he's one of the toughest, most consistent 3-year-olds in the country."

Tom Cooley

Kentucky Derby Trail: Baffert and Zito on Collision Course

With Bob Baffert pairing up over the past two weekends, and Nick Zito still sitting with three of a kind, it should be quite a game of cat and mouse if the two born again Kentuckians meet at Churchill Downs with their hands intact.

As of now, the big conflict brewing on the Derby Trail is between Zito and his Bay Bombers versus Baffert and his Gray Brigade, a title dubbed by racing's "Great White" himself.

It seems as if the balance of power has shifted from Florida to California, as Preachinatthebar and St Averil flattered the form of Master David and Borrego, which in turn moved Wimbledon up even farther. Add to that mix, the San Rafael (gr. II) one-two finishers, Imperialism and Lion Heart, and you now have the nucleus of a solid corps of California horses. The amazing pat of Sunday's San Felipe (gr. II) was that no horses were seriously hampered, or much worse, by the riderless Laditude. He did bother several horses in one way or another, but they at least made it around there unobstructed and unscathed, except for Action This Day, who came out of the race with a severe laceration behind his ankle.

Unlike the San Felipe, Saturday's Florida Derby (gr. I) clouded a picture that seemed much clearer before the race. Although two of Zito's big guns, Eurosilver and The Cliff's Edge, were defeated on Saturday, both took major steps forward. The Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) on Sunday ran true to form, but Mustanfar's bad start and odd journey around the Tampa oval left one contemplating if the finish would have been different had the colt not gotten bumped from both sides and squeezed at the start, followed by a premature move down the backstretch, which ended with him having to steady entering the far turn, then splitting horses in the stretch.

And finally, there was the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), which looked more like a quarter-horse finish, with four horses separated by about a half-length, and the first seven horses within 3 1/2 lengths of each other.

The San Felipe was supposed to be the real coming out party for champ Action This Day, but after breaking sharply, the only impact he had on the race was taking the rail away from the riderless Laditude and forcing him to move out and split Last Minute Detail and Preachinatthebar, which was the scariest part of the race. It may have been when he went to the outside that that Laditude struck Action This Day, who never ran a lick after that. St Averil, meanwhile, was forced to go five wide into the turn, with Preachinatthebar nudging him out a little farther when Laditude came charging through horses.

Laditude then made his presence felt on an unsuspecting Odds On, who was just rolling along on the lead, minding his own business. When Odds On saw the loose horse, he grabbed hold of the bit and wanted to step it up. Alex Solis tried to restrain him, and when he did, the colt displaced his palate and lost his air, eventually fading to sixth. A myectomy will be performed on the the colt to correct the problem.

Odds On's retreat forced Javier Santiago to take over the lead with Preachinatthebar at the three-eighths pole. St Averil put it in gear and pulled up alongside nearing the quarter pole, but Preachinatthebar spurted clear to open a length and a half lead. When Tyler Baze went to a right-handed whip on St Averil, he kicked into another gear and started closing in on the leader. The blinkered Preachinattehbar saw him at the last second and dug in, just getting the nod at the wire.

This was a solid race for both horses. Preachinatthebar showed a new dimension, and justified Baffert's comments that the once immature colt was just now beginning to come around and act like a real racehorse. Baffert is still unsure whether to split him and Wimbledon up or run both in the Santa Anita Derby. For St Averil, this was a big effort, coming off a two-month layoff, picking up nine pounds from the Santa Catalina (gr. II), and giving six pounds to the winner. Neither colt will have any problem getting the 1 1/4 miles. Both ran their first three fractions (quarters) in :23 and change and came home strong the final furlong. Third-place finisher Harvard Avenue and fourth-place finisher Cheiron ran well enough to suggest there is still room for improvement. St Averil could go in the Santa Anita Derby, but may wait the extra week and head for the Blue Grass.

It is interesting to note that the breeder of St Averil, Bo Smith, started in 1989 with one horse, St Averil's granddam, Fancy Pan, who along with the colt's dam, Avie's Fancy, resides at Smith 11-acre farm near Millstone, N.J., about 10 minutes from the old Daily Racing Form building in Hightstown. If Smith hadn't sent Avie's Fancy to Kentucky (the first time he ever sent a mare out of state to foal) to be bred to Cherokee Run and give birth to her 2001 foal, St Averil would be a New Jersey-bred.

In the Tampa Bay Derby, Limehouse showed once again he's one of the toughest, most consistent 3-year-olds in the country. There is a question about his ability to stay 10 furlongs, because of the fast female sprinters that dominate his tail-female family, but for now he keeps doing what he has to and must be respected.

If you're looking for a live Derby contender coming out of here, it is our old friend Mustanfar, who is back on the right track after straying off the Derby trail in the grassy Palm Beach Stakes. After getting bumped from both sides coming out of the gate and getting squeezed back, he settled into a long, beautiful stride. Down the backstretch, the entire field drifted three paths off the rail, and jockey Joe Judice sent Mustanfar past everyone until he moved right up to the leader, Very Formal, who came back to the inside, forcing Judice to steady Mustanfar.

After dropping back to fourth, he moved up to the leaders approaching the quarter pole. Judice started to swing out for room, but when nothing looked promising, he remained inside, finding a hole between Very Formal and Swingforthefences. By the time he got through, Limehouse had taken over the lead. He pulled almost on even terms with Limehouse in the final 70 yards, but couldn't make up any more ground, with the winner finding more at the end. He could show up in any of the three big preps on April 10, with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin leaning a bit more to the Blue Grass Stakes. This colt has as strong a classic and stamina pedigree as you'll ever see, and he's never missed a day of training in his life. Watch out for him going a mile and a quarter.

Third-place finisher, Swingforthefences ran closer to the pace than he did last time out, and although he ran gamely to the wire, he needs to take back and make one run like he did at Gulfstream.

Returning to Gulfstream for a first level allowance race Saturday, the impressive winner was Suave, who ran two-fifths faster than the Florida Derby. He's got a super pedigree, but he is a colt who likes running free and clear of other horses, and had a perfect trip this time. Each time he's been stuck in traffic he's pretty much taken the day off. He gets his head down and pins his ears like he means business, but needs to be more consistent. He's not nominated to the Blue Grass, and likely will wait for the Lexington Stakes (gr. II), with the Illinois Derby (gr. II) an alternative. Runner-up Royal Assault was giving away a lot of experience and is another up-and-coming star from the Zito barn.

Coming up in the next column will be a preview of this coming weekend's races, headed by Birdstone in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II). But don't miss the Gotham, which will feature one of the best matchups of the year between two very gifted colts, Eddington and Redskin Warrior. And watch out for another potential star, Purge, to emerge in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III).