Bred In Medina, Harlan's Holiday Is Early Kentucky Derby Favorite

By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Trainers from California to Ireland to Dubai cling to the belief they'll win the Kentucky Derby, a race in which many doubt the ability of the 20 colts.

Take Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, who will saddle Medaglia d'Oro on Saturday. The 3-year-old with the Italian name was second in the Wood Memorial, but has run in just four career races.

"He's got something better -- talent," Frankel said. "Which would you rather have, a horse who could run or a horse who had run a lot? Talent makes up for a lot of things."

Or how about two-time Derby winner Bob Baffert? He acquired Illinois Derby winner War Emblem just three weeks ago. His other entry, Danthebluegrassman, is one of four colts at 50-1 on the morning line.

"If this horse wins the Derby, it'll be the best and shortest training job ever," Baffert said about War Emblem. "He's as ready as he can be. Whether he's good enough, you can't predict in a 20-horse field."

Three months of prep races around the world failed to produce a compelling favorite, leaving the Derby picture as muddied as the Churchill Downs track after heavy downpours Thursday.

Harlan's Holiday is the early favorite at 9-2, but even those odds are the highest since the morning line was first published in 1949.

"It doesn't matter to me what his odds are," trainer Ken McPeek said. "I know he is going to run well."

The knock on Harlan's Holiday is that he's an Ohio-bred, and the state hasn't produced a Derby winner since Wintergreen in 1909.

"The Derby is a Pandora's box because you never know what is going to happen," said Edgar Prado, who'll ride Harlan's Holiday.

The 20-horse field is a bettor's delight but guarantees a rough running that will leave several horses with excuses.

"There's 10 good horses in there that can win," Baffert said.

Three of the biggest question marks are foreigners, who didn't follow the traditional route of running in American prep races.

Irish-based Johannesburg and his stablemate, Castle Gandolfo, have been 70 miles away in Lexington since arriving Tuesday. They won't travel to Churchill Downs until about 8½ hours before the Derby's 6:04 p.m. EDT post time.

Trainer Aidan O'Brien's plans are less certain. He's had the flu for a week and his doctor is reluctant to allow him to fly to Louisville. A final decision was expected Friday. An assistant is supervising Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo in O'Brien's absence.

Sheik Mohammed's Essence of Dubai won the UAE Derby at 1¼ miles, the Kentucky Derby distance, in his last start March 23.

"At least we know he can go the distance," said Tom Albertrani, the American assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "We just have to see how he stands up to the other horses here, knowing that the competition in Dubai may not have been as stiff."

Essence of Dubai gives Godolphin Racing its fourth consecutive Derby representative. China Visit's sixth-place finish in 2000 was the stable's best effort.

"The sheik's biggest goal is to win the race coming from Dubai," Albertrani said. "I think that would be a great accomplishment for him because it's against the odds, and he likes that challenge."

Johannesburg is a co-third choice at 6-1; Essence of Dubai is 15-1; and Castle Gandolfo, making his American debut, is 20-1.

"They're the X factor in here -- big time," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will start 30-1 shot Proud Citizen.

Only four foreign-breds have won the Derby; the last was Sunny's Halo from Canada in 1983.

"They will win it," Baffert said. "It's just a matter of time."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)