- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Look for another traffic jam under the Twin Spires.

The largest field in 17 years seems certain when post positions are drawn today for Saturday's 126th Kentucky Derby. A maximum 20-horse field is probable despite two defections yesterday. In fact, two more Derby seekers will be denied a spot in the field based on career stakes earnings.

It seems the Run for the Roses has proven too alluring. From Kentucky-breds to a Dubai sheikh with two long shots, the Churchill Downs backstretch is abuzz with optimism.

Trainer Todd Fletcher will enter four colts, one more than former mentor D. Wayne Lukas, who brings three runners in search of his second straight Derby victory and fifth overall. Jenine Sahadi wants to become the first woman trainer to win with The Deputy, while trainer Neil Drysdale could have the 1-2 finishers in Fusaichi Pegasus and War Chant. The cavalry charge has relegated two-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert into the background with contender Captain Steve instead of his usual center stage.

What caused the Derby fever outbreak, in which even colts with little chance have owners willing to pay the $30,000 entry fee? That no favorite has won since 1979 gives everyone courage their horse will become the next Charismatic, who won at 31-1 odds last year.

"I don't see any exceptional horse," Lukas said. "No Spectacular Bid, no Seattle Slew or Secretariat. In my opinion, I don't think they are here. I think we are getting more of an even keel in 20-horse fields, more horses with legitimate chances. I wouldn't concede the Derby to any horse."

Certainly, there are some solid contenders. Fusaichi Pegasus is the likely favorite, but War Chant, The Deputy, High Yield, More Than Ready and Captain Steve make it one of the more competitive recent Derbies.

The Deputy beat War Chant by one length in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 to become the probable second choice. The Deputy has only a narrow loss to Fusaichi Pegasus in the San Felipe Stakes on March 19 to offset three U.S. victories since racing on the grass in England last year. War Chant also has won three of four races this year. High Yield is Lukas' top contender after winning the Blue Grass Stakes on April 15. More Than Ready is Fletcher's leading runner after losing the Blue Grass by a head.

"I think this is a very tough Kentucky Derby," Sahadi said. "Anything can happen to me like any other horse in the race. I don't have any delusions on how tough it is. With the size of the field there's always the likelihood some bad luck will happen."

Former Maryland rider Kent Desormeaux seeks his second Derby triumph in three years aboard Fusaichi Pegasus. The tempermental colt has been tougher to get into the starting gate than the winner's circle. The Wood Memorial winner is 4-0 this year under trainer Neil Drysdale, who was elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame yesterday.

"[Fusaichi Pegasus] is as athletic as a cat," said Desormeaux, who opted to ride the colt over War Chant. "He's a playful dude. His massive size lets him do a lot of things he wants to. Now all we need is a little luck."

Meanwhile, Baffert seems an afterthought after attracting the biggest backstretch crowds in recent years. He lost the 1996 Derby by a nose with Cavonnier, and Baffert's Silver Charm and Real Quiet won the 1997-98 Derbies and Preakness Stakes. The gregarious white-haired trainer has slipped in the past year, but Captain Steve could resurrect Baffert's dominance. The colt finished third in all three races this year after winning the 1999 Hollywood Futurity, but Baffert's removal of the colt's blinkers indicates maturity. Indeed, Captain Steve worked a sharp five-eighths mile in 59 2/5 seconds yesterday.

"He's more focused now with the racing experience he's had and doesn't need them anymore," Baffert said. "He's fit and ready for a mile and one-quarter. What we need now is some luck. He's as good now as I can get him."

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