Has Derby fever begun its annual rose-colored rise up the old thermometer, or do you still have samurais and geisha girls on the brain?It seems like only yesterday that dusk was settling on Churchill Downs and we were all rejoicing over racing's newest hero. We all felt as if the messiah had finally been delivered in the form of an Adonis-like creature named Fusaichi Pegasus. Then it all disappeared into the murk of a misty Maryland afternoon, leaving us to start our search all over again.Sometimes, it's difficult in January to cast away the indelible images of the previous year's Kentucky Derby and once again begin that long trek to Louisville. We know the image of the Twin Spires will not be coming into view for another two to three months, but still we strain in the hope of getting even a veiled look off in the distance.If you are among those far-sighted fans, then welcome to the first Derby Report. No search for Derby horses can begin anywhere other than at the barns of D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito. We know it's been six years since Zito smelled the roses, but injuries to several top prospects have kept him relatively quiet on the first Saturday in May. But he has been in the thick of things with live horses like Halory Hunter and Stephen Got Even. Last year, Zito won his third straight Champagne Stakes with A P Valentine, but unlike previous winners The Groom is Red and Greenwood Lake, who both came from the clouds, A P Valentine is the complete package. And his Champagne victory over a top-class field, while coming off a maiden victory, was still the single most impressive performance we saw from a 2-year-old last year. If he returns to that form, and we see no reason why he shouldn't, then we believe he will be the horse to beat on May 5.A shocked Zito watched as the son of A.P. Indy finished last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but he soon discovered the colt had bucked his shins. The shins have been fired, and A P Valentine has begun working at Hialeah. With this colt's athleticism, pedigree, and raw talent, Zito won't have to do much with him other than, as he said, "stay out of his way."Baffert and Lukas, as usual, have an arsenal of 3-year-olds, although Lukas says he won't be "making much noise" early in the year. "No one will know we're around," Lukas said. "But they will by April." Baffert has the consensus Derby future book favorite, Point Given, who was a nose away from being 2-year-old champion. No plans have been mapped out yet for the son of Thunder Gulch. There is also the gutsy, multiple graded stakes winner, Flame Thrower, who recently returned after having chips removed from his knee; the newly purchased Concern gelding Global Gait, a two-time stakes winner in Maryland who has already won at 1 1/8 miles; Denied, who finished a solid third in Sunday's Santa Catalina Stakes; and the impressive maiden winner Silvertongue Fox. On Sunday, the Seeking the Gold colt Special Times, making his first career start going 1 1/16 miles, turned in a spectacular run from last to win going away by 2 lengths over a classy maiden field. Another top prospect, Indy Lead, finished last in the Santa Catalina.
For a stable that won't be making much noise, Lukas' horses haven't exactly been cloistered away in winter hibernation. But he does seem to be right about not making much noise. Unbridled Time tried to get untracked in the San Miguel Stakes, but was never a threat, finishing fifth behind the lightning-fast Lasersport, an undefeated son of Gilded Time. The following day, Padua Stable's Woodman colt High Cascade finished a good second to Hoovergethekeys in the Golden Gate Derby over a muddy track after battling for the lead the whole way. This past weekend, Drumcliff was eased in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and one of Lukas' big hopes, the newly acquired Turnberry Isle, finished a well-beaten fifth in the Santa Catalina.If Lukas is going be making noise come April, it could very well be with Gold Trader, a son of Storm Cat, out of Golden Attraction, who broke his maiden impressively in the slop at Churchill Downs last year. Lukas also has stakes-placed Scorpion and a couple of promising colts, Daring Bid and Full Scale, but those two have a lot of catching up to do. Lukas' best 2-year-old, Yonaguska, will not be nominated for the Triple Crown, remaining at shorter distances.One trainer holding a hot hand is John Ward, with three live Derby hopefuls. Monarchos, a son of Maria's Mon with a classy, distance-loving female line, has done a good deal of maturing over the past several months and was very impressive breaking his maiden by 6 lengths at Gulfstream on Jan. 13. The Thunder Gulch colt Holiday Thunder, who placed in all three major 2-year-old stakes in Kentucky, is back working at Gulfstream and will look for an allowance race to set him up for the Fountain of Youth. Coming along last will be Hero's Tribute, a talented look-alike son of Sea Hero who had been battling a small quarter crack. Runner-up in the Iroquois, he has started breezing at Gulfstream, and will await the Florida Derby.Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno has arrived at Gulfstream after a freshening on the farm, and has put on 70 pounds of muscle, according to farm manager Danny Vella. The son of Holy Bull should be about ready to breeze a half mile. His initial target will be the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Also at Gulfstream pointing for the Fountain of Youth is Remsen winner Windsor Castle, who has been in steady training for trainer Frank Alexander. The son of Lord Carson has been working every eight days in preparation for the Fountain of Youth. Two impressive winners awaiting the Fountain of Youth are Outofthebox, trained by Bernie Flint, and Invisible Ink, trained by Todd Pletcher.
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