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FLORIDA DERBY MAY BE ALSO-RAN.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI Horse Racing

The Florida Derby, the highlight of the sunny Gulfstream Park season near Miami, has proved to be the most influential Kentucky Derby prep race of many a year since its creation in 1952.

But this time it might not even be the biggest Derby prep of the weekend - or the afternoon.

It will depend on the performance of Three Ring, whose entry in Saturday's 11-horse field makes her the second filly to challenge colts this season.

It will depend on the result of Saturday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, where Exploit and Prime Timber will decide who's No. 1 in the Bob Baffert barn.

It will depend on the result of Sunday's Louisiana Derby at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, where Baffert-trained General Challenge will be favored over Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Answer Lively.

And it will depend on the result of Sunday's Santa Anita Oaks, in which Baffert-trained Excellent Meeting must trounce other fillies to earn a shot at the Derby.

Combined, the races make for the busiest week yet in the buildup to the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

Until this week, it appeared the $750,000 Florida Derby would be distinguished mainly by the fact the nearly omnipresent Baffert won't have a horse in it.

Then trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. decided to enter the filly Three Ring in the 1-1/8-mile race whose favorites are Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Vicar and runner-up Cat Thief.

This would be the second ``battle of the sexes'' of the 3-year-old season, following Honest Lady's close, fifth-place finish behind Desert Hero in the San Rafael Stakes last month at Santa Anita. The defeat hasn't dissuaded trainer Bobby Frankel from aiming her for the April 3 Santa Anita Derby.

This would also be the first ``battle of the sexes'' in the Florida Derby since Ridan (and Manny Ycaza) nosed out the filly Cicada (and Bill Shoemaker) in the bumpy 1962 running.

When Three Ring was entered Wednesday morning, however, she wasn't certain to run. Plesa had said he would scratch her if she drew one of the outside post positions. Wouldn't you know it, she drew post 10.

``I'm not saying no, but it's not helping the cause at all,'' Plesa said following that development. ``I don't mind running against the boys. I just don't want to give them any advantages. I don't want to get hung up on the outside.''

If Three Ring backs out, she'll run against other fillies Tuesday in the Bonnie Miss Stakes, also at Gulfstream.

But why not try the Derby trail?

Three Ring seems to have the talent, her 14-3/4-length victory in the Davona Dale Stakes having earned a 106 Beyer speed figure, about six lengths faster than Vicar's Fountain of Youth.

And Plesa's worry about the post position is curious. Three Ring, who will be ridden by John Velazquez, is a front-runner. The only other speed horse, Valid Trefaire, drew post 1. Three Ring should be able to shoot to a perfect position up front.

Plesa should look at the record book: Of the past seven Florida Derbies with 11 or more horses, three were won by horses who broke from post 10 or higher and grabbed the early lead. It's not hard.

The record book also shows the Florida Derby is the best place to be for a horse who wants to be a factor in the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby favorite or winner - or both - has come out of the Florida Derby in 27 of the past 47 years.

Saturday's field, from the rail out, with morning-line odds: 1. Valid Trefaire (Jose Santos), 15-1; 2. Cat Thief (Pat Day), 4-1; Certain (Kent Desormeaux), 6-1; 4. Adonis (Jorge Chavez), 10-1; 5. Vicar (Shane Sellers), 3-1; 6. Casanova Star (Mike Smith), 20-1; 7. Wondertross (Jerry Bailey), 8-1; 8. Grits'n Hard Toast (Robbie Davis), 8-1; 9. First American (Jose Velez), 20-1; 10. Three Ring, 5-1; 11. Aly's Alley (Edgar Prado), 15-1.

San Felipe: Sunbirds and national racing writers will flock to the Florida Derby as always. But if they want to watch the definitive race of the Derby campaign, they might have to stick around about an hour and watch the San Felipe on TV.

The $250,000 San Felipe, the last steppingstone to the Santa Anita Derby, poses the first 1 1/16-mile test for Exploit, the Bob and Beverly Lewis-owned colt who's 5 for 5 and the consensus leader of his age group.

If Exploit loses his perfect record, Baffert might have only himself to blame, because Prime Timber comes into the San Felipe following a fastest-of-the-morning 5-furlong workout in :58 4/5 Monday. Prime Timber was wearing the blinkers he'll have on for the first time in a race on Saturday. He'll also have a new jockey in David Flores, who's filling in for Gary Stevens, who's following Silverbulletday to the Fair Grounds Oaks the same day.

Not forgotten: About 200 tearful horsemen and fans attended a memorial Tuesday at Golden Eagle Farm near San Diego - for a horse, the popular Best Pal, who died of a heart attack at the farm in November.

Del Mar general manager Joe Harper presided over the event, which featured speeches by Best Pal's owners, John and Betty Mabee, trainers Gary Jones and Richard Mandella and jockey Corey Black.

``If God had a favorite horse, it would be Best Pal,'' Mandella said.

The gelding was 8 when he retired in 1996 after earning a California-bred record $5.6 million and winning the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.

He's buried on the farm under a 600-year-old oak tree.

Help from above? A daughter of the stallion Dimaggio won Santa Anita's opener Wednesday - the track's first race following the death of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio on Monday.

Candi Lee, a 6-year-old mare, paid $6.40. You were hoping for $56?

Dimaggio the horse died in 1994 after a California breeding career during which he sired Prince Spellbound, a winner of the Hollywood Turf Cup and the Eddie Read Handicap. On the track, Dimaggio had won the 1974 Hollywood Juvenile Championship and other stakes around the state.

Big 'Cap, indeed: Free House, Event of the Year and Silver Charm - 1-2-3 in Sunday's Santa Anita Handicap - also are 1-2-3 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's media poll this week.

Free House's 2:00.67 for 1-1/4 miles earned a 118 Beyer speed figure, the highest reported since October.

Immediate plans had Silver Charm aiming to defend his title in the March 28 Dubai World Cup - where Malek and Victory Gallop will be the other U.S. horses - and fifth-place Puerto Madero out of the Dubai race because of a swollen ankle.

A WEEK AT THE RACES

Santa Anita leaders: Jockeys (through Wednesday): Alex Solis, 50 wins; David Flores, 43; Chris McCarron, 38; Laffit Pincay, 37; Gary Stevens, 35. Trainers: Bob Baffert, 27; Ron McAnally, 16; Bobby Frankel, 14; Vladimir Cerin and Richard Mandella, 13.

Handicapper helper: The Florida Derby has been won by the post-time favorite (or a member of a favored multi-horse entry) only twice in the past 16 years. Snow Chief paid $5 in 1986, Fly So Free $2.80 in '91.

On the stakes schedule: At Santa Anita: Saturday, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes, 3-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles; Sunday, $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks, 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles, and $125,000 Crystal Water Handicap, California-bred 4-year-olds and up, 1 mile on turf; Wednesday, $100,000 La Habra, 3-year-old fillies, 6-1/2 furlongs on turf. At Gulfstream Park: today, $100,000 Deputy Minister Handicap, 3-year-olds and up, 7 furlongs; Saturday, $750,000 Florida Derby, 3-year-olds, 1-1/8 miles, and $100,000 Swale, 3-year-olds, 7 furlongs; Tuesday, $200,000 Bonnie Miss, 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles. At the Fair Grounds: Saturday, $350,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles; Sunday, $600,000 Louisiana Derby, 3-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles.

Mileposts: Former Calumet Farm president J.T. Lundy was arrested in Miami after stepping off a plane from Venezuela. The charges include fraud and bribery during the fall into 1991 bankruptcy of the Lexington, Ky., farm that produced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. . . . Free House became the fifth horse - the first since Affirmed in 1978-79 - to win both the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap. . . . Big Jag has the Santa Anita meet's fastest 7 furlongs (1:21.18 in winning Sunday's San Carlos) and its fastest 6 furlongs (1:08.05 in winning the Palos Verdes). . . . Gulfstream Park's season ends Tuesday and Miami-area racing shifts to Hialeah. Californians, who had been betting on full cards from Gulfstream, now will get simulcasts from the New Orleans Fair Grounds. . . . It's like a whole new season at Aqueduct: The ``winter'' inner track is closed and the main track opened Wednesday. Three former Californians went 1-2-3 in the jockey standings for the inner-track portion of the meet: Aaron Gryder, Rene Douglas and apprentice Ariel Smith. . . . Trainer Frank Passero, who sent out 14 consecutive winners at Gulfstream in '96, has started to run and claim horses at Santa Anita, and told the Daily Racing Form he hopes to have a stable of 20 here. . . . Bet Twice died at age 15 at a breeding farm in Maryland. He won the 1987 Belmont Stakes, in which Alysheba finished fourth, failing to complete a Triple Crown sweep. . . . Santa Anita jockeys Matt Garcia and Garrett Gomez were fined $500 each for throwing elbows during a race.

- Kevin Modesti

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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 12, 1999
Words:1601
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