Steve Haskin

Steve Haskin

Anne M. Eberhardt

Haskin Report: Trying to Dodge Baffert, Lukas, Zito

How about a little diversionary game on the way to next Saturday's Fountain of Youth and Risen Star stakes? Picture the Derby trail as a maze. The object is to find your way through the maze and reach Churchill Downs without running into D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert or Nick Zito.

Well, we didn't say it would easy. But with racing's three-headed monster concentrating on blocking all the major roads, this past weekend's smattering of minor stakes was an excellent chance for trainers to take another step in achieving their goal. Not to mention taking home some decent cash as well.

Some at Santa Anita thought they could sneak a step closer by running in a small restricted race on a Friday called the Sham Stakes. Sorry, you lose. Not only did you run into one Baffert horse, you ran into two. If you were lucky you were able to squeeze your way into second between Baffert's two horses, Wild and Wise, who won the race, and Special Times, who finished a fast-closing third.

Then there were those who felt safe in running in the non-graded Whirlaway Stakes over Aqueduct's inner dirt track. Surely, you wouldn't confront any of the big three in New York in the dead of winter. Guess what? You lose, too. There was the Nick Zito-trained Regal Shivers, a former claimer, rolling by the 1-5 favorite Voodoo to win by 5 1/2 lengths.

If you think those trainers were surprised, how about the ones who showed up for Saturday's non-graded Golden State Mile at Golden Gate only to run smack into Lukas and Gold Trader, the horse he's been enamored with since the day he laid eyes on him. Although the regally bred son of Storm Cat, out of Golden Attraction, had run only twice in his life, all he managed to do on Saturday was wire his field and win by 2 lengths in a sharp 1:35 flat.

So, the game is over, everyone loses, and everything is now back to normal. If you couldn't get past this weekend unscathed, what are you going to do in future weeks when the mighty trio really gets rolling?

For the record, the horse that managed to slip into the Baffert sandwich in the Sham is a hard-knocking colt named Swordfish. Although he has three second-place finishes in a row and hasn't won in his last five, he may well be hankering for more distance, with four Belmont winners in his pedigree, and a ton of stamina in his female family.

Getting back to the Derby dynamos, Lukas still insists he won't be making much noise until April 15. But with Gold Trader catapulting himself into Derby contention, High Cascade shipping to Gulfstream for the Fountain of Youth, and Unbridled Time finishing a much-improved fourth, beaten less than three lengths, in the nine-furlong Sham Stakes, Lukas isn't exactly whispering in the wind.

As for Gold Trader, this was a huge step forward after finishing a troubled fifth in a 6-furlong allowance race. Although he didn't beat much, that 1:35 still is serious time. Lukas said he hasn't decided on his next start, but is planning on it being in the first half of March. "What a gorgeous horse this is," Lukas said. "I'm really excited about him."

Lukas also has high hopes for Scorpion, a grade I-placed son of Seattle Slew, who has done a lot of maturing over the winter, and has been working super at Gulfstream, along with another well-bred colt Duality. After working 7 furlongs in 1:23 4/5 by himself at Santa Anita, Lukas said High Cascade will make some noise in the Fountain of Youth. The son of Woodman is coming off a solid second in the Golden Gate Derby, despite being short in his first start in four months and first start around two turns. He should be a major pace factor on Saturday.

And then there is Turnberry Isle, who was so highly touted going into the Santa Catalina Stakes, only to finish up the track. A group winner in England and a strong sixth, beaten only 3 1/2 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Turnberry Isle still is very much in Lukas' Derby plans. "He was dead-short in his last race and he hadn't acclimated yet," Lukas said. "But he's been putting on a pound a day and is doing super. I've been reluctant to really tout him, because he's just a little horse, but he's put on weight and muscle. We'll go straight into the Florida Derby with him."

The best way to describe Baffert's forces is to say that any trainer would kill to have his 3-year-olds who are not nominated to the Triple Crown, notably Wild and Wise, Special Times, and Flame Thrower. Neither Wild and Wise nor Special Times, a towering 17-hands giant with a monster move, will be nominated to the Triple Crown by John Mabee, but it will be interesting to see what happens if Special Times should win the Santa Anita Derby, the race Baffert is pointing him for, or if Wild and Wise keeps on winning. Mabee then would then have to put up a hundred grand to enter if he has a change of heart.

Baffert will learn what kind of purchase he made when he sends out Global Gait in the Fountain of Youth against some pretty solid Derby contenders. His big horse, Point Given will not run until the San Felipe Mar. 17. Baffert also is looking for a nonwinners allowance race for Silvertongue Fox, but he'll have to hold up a while with stakes-placed Denied after the colt underwent surgery Saturday to free an entrapped epiglottis.

Zito will put his big horse A P Valentine on stage for the first time Saturday in a 7-furlong allowance race against Hero's Tribute and several other classy colts, and switches to Pat Day, whom he feels will fit the colt better than the aggressive Jorge Chavez.

Regal Shivers, a son of Wavering Monarch, has really come into his own in his last two races. He easily defeated Tasty Caberneigh in an allowance race on Jan. 18, and that colt came back and romped by 7 lengths in his next start. In the Whirlaway, Regal Shivers tracked to big favorite Voodoo, then just exploded by him and drew off to win comfortably. It's not unusual for a Zito-trained 3-year-old to improve dramatically this time of year, so we'll just have see what we have. This colt could be a candidate for the Spiral Stakes, a race in which Zito has done well. Zito also is very high on It's So Simple, a Smart Strike colt who's won his last two starts at 1 1/8 miles.

More minor stakes action

Not much can be determined from the weekend's other stakes, as longshot Son of Rocket barely held off the late charge of Firststatedeposit to win the 6-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes, as Oaklawn Park kicked off it's 3-year-old stakes series. At Turfway, it doesn't look as if any K One Kings came out of Saturday's Presidents Stakes, with Bonnie Scot edging out Big Will to win by a neck, although the winner has now won three of his last four, including an 18-length allowance score in January. At Laurel, Ronnie's Hot Rod came out of a $40,000 claiming race to easily win the Deputed Testamony for state-breds by 4 1/4 lengths.

One horse who definitely bears watching is Keats, a son of Hennessy, who wired an allowance field at Gulfstream Saturday, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over the Zito-trained Lake Agawam in a swift 1:22 1/5 for the 7 furlongs. Formerly trained in Ireland by Aidan O'Brien, Keats is now in the barn of Niall O'Callaghan. The big question is how far he wants to go

We'll provide a more in-depth look at the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Wednesday.