- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trainer Nick Zito has five chances to win today’s 131st Kentucky Derby. He’ll need them against possibly the best Derby field in a decade.

Zito’s Bellamy Road is the early favorite in the field of 20 that should send waves of contenders down the Churchill Downs stretch. A handful of speedsters can match front-running Bellamy Road early, while several stretch runners are dangerous, too. Derby winners from Arkansas and Florida, along with major stakes victors from California, Kentucky and New York, fill the Triple Crown race with lucrative betting angles.

“If you look at some of the great horses [ever] in the Derby, breaks are a big thing,” Zito said. “You never know where they’re going to be. Bellamy Road … you just hope he’s in a good spot.”

Team Zito could win without Bellamy Road, though the runaway Wood Memorial champion is the barn’s star. High Fly took the Florida Derby while Sun King won the Tampa Bay Derby. Noble Causeway is the perfect closer if his stablemate falters in the stretch. Only Andromeda’s Hero seems outclassed.

But it’s not a Zito victory lap just yet. Afleet Alex won the Arkansas Derby. Bandini overwhelmed the Blue Grass Stakes field. Buzzards Bay led every step to take the Santa Anita Derby at 30-1.

Indeed, the largest Derby field in 21 years will send 20 horses thundering to a first turn that historically has an impact on the outcome. At least five horses are capable of challenging Bellamy Road early on, and the cavalry charge to the front might cause plenty of the bumping that traditionally costs several entrants any chance of winning.

Zito chose an outside No. 16 post for Bellamy Road to stay clear of the frantic charge. It was just part of the strategy he discussed with five riders yesterday. Mostly, Zito lets riders pick their early placement.

“Luckily for me, those jockeys are sensational and there’s not too much instruction I would give,” he said. “We have Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey. We have everybody known to man.”

Most of the field’s fate will be apparent when it reaches Heartbreak Lane at the top of the stretch. If the opening mile is fast, the front-runners might falter in the final eighth-mile. A slow early pace would give the front-runners a major advantage over closers in the lane.

“You hope at the eighth pole you’ve got a shot to win with somebody,” Zito said. “I didn’t bring anything here that doesn’t look like a Derby horse.”

However, many trainers expect a fast pace that will spread the field across the course. That would give several entrants a clear path.

“Hopefully, speed will wear itself out and three stalkers will move up,” said Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchie, who will wear his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt under his suit. “You have to be within striking distance at the top of the lane and at the eighth pole they have to accelerate to the wire.”

Last year, Smarty Jones was the second favorite since 2000 to win the Derby after a 20-year drought. However, a Bellamy Road loss could replicate four recent win payoffs of more than $22. A betting angle that paid $1,300.20 in 2002 was an exacta using trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert. The pair have combined for seven Derby victories, but Lukas’ Going Wild and Baffert’s Sort It Out were both 50-1 in the morning line.

“I don’t think Going Wild will be 50-1. I think he’ll be closer to 80,” said Lukas, jokingly. “I don’t think they’ll let Bob Baffert and I let either of our horses get off at such high odds.

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