Prospect Has All Eyes On Arkansas Derby Favorite Trick Also Is Being Watched For The Kentucky Derby. There Are Doubters, However.

Posted: April 11, 1998

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Oaklawn Park, located downtown near the thermal baths, just three blocks from President Clinton's boyhood home on Clark Street, has been Arkansas' biggest tourist attraction almost from the day it was established 94 years ago. But it has never had a visitor quite like the one standing here in Stall 39 in a tin-roofed barn on the back side.

Favorite Trick, a modest dark bay 3-year-old colt who has experts scratching their heads in puzzlement, is here to run in today's $500,000 Arkansas Derby on the last big weekend of Kentucky Derby prep races.

He is undefeated in nine races, the winter book Kentucky Derby favorite, and the only horse since the legendary Secretariat to win Horse of the Year at age 2. Oaklawn, with all its famous visitors, from Al Capone to Citation, never had a reigning Horse of the Year.

A crowd expected to reach nearly 60,000 and a coast-to-coast media contingent have been gathering for days in this central Arkansas town of 35,000 and, said an Oaklawn security guard, ``it seems like half of them have come by the barn to see Favorite Trick.''

The Arkansas Derby usually is upstaged by the Wood Memorial in New York and the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington, Ky.; the three races start within minutes of each other this afternoon. But with Favorite Trick, the 4-5 favorite in a field of nine here, Oaklawn suddenly has become the center of American racing.

``It isn't the circus it was with Cigar,'' said trainer Bill Mott, who brought that famous horse here for one of his legendary runs two years ago. ``Not yet, anyway.''

And there are those who doubt it will ever be. Despite his many accomplishments - eight victories, a Breeders' Cup championship, $1.2 million in earnings as a 2-year-old, and an easy victory in his only race this year, he continues to have serious doubters.

The biggest question is his stamina. He isn't bred to go the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby distance.

``I understand,'' said Mott, standing outside Favorite Trick's stall yesterday morning. ``I have questions, too. Each time you go [to the track] there's a new question. This time it's the distance factor. I feel pretty confident that he'll get the mile-and-an-eighth. Then the mile-and-a-quarter becomes the new question. A big question. But it is a question for all of them.''

The Wood, the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby, all at 1 1/8 miles, represent the first trip at that distance for the top Kentucky Derby candidates running today. But among the favorites, Favorite Trick, whose dam (Evil Elaine) and sire (Phone Trick) both were sprinters, is the most suspect.

``I'm sure there is something to it,'' said Mott, alluding to the pedigree factor. ``There are so many times when it works out to be true. But there is the occasion when they have a horse that is the exception.''

It will take a poor performance today - losing with no excuse - or an injury to knock Favorite Trick off the Derby trail, Mott said. Not bloodlines.

If he wins today, he will be one of three undefeated colts in the Kentucky Derby, along with Event of the Year and Indian Charlie, both 4 for 4. No horse has won the Derby off four or fewer starts since Regret in 1915.

Favorite Trick's top competition is expected to come from a lightly raced California horse named Quake, the 3-1 second favorite who was second to Indian Charlie in an allowance race last month at Santa Anita. Fight For M'lady, trained by Ben Perkins Jr., of Medford, N.J., is a dark-horse candidate at 10-1. He's 4 for 5 lifetime and won the 1 1/8-mile Laurel Futurity in November. Win or lose, Perkins said, there are no plans to take the horse to the Kentucky Derby.

Cape Town, Lil's Lad and Halory Hunter, who finished the Florida Derby 1-2-3 last month, head a five-horse field in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Lil's Lad, who finished first but was disqualified and placed second for bumping in the stretch, is the 1-2 favorite.

The Arkansas Derby, 5:49 post time, and the Wood Memorial, 5:38 post, will be carried live on Channel 6.

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