Rain Possible Derby Factor

Eighteen horses are heading for the starting gate at Churchill Downs - and they'd better like mud.

A sloppy track in Saturday's Kentucky Derby could favor Imperialism, Pollard's Vision and the undefeated Smarty Jones, experts say.

"We're ready to dance," said John Servis, who trains Smarty Jones.

Todd Pletcher believes a wet track helps Pollard's Vision, but isn't a factor for Limehouse, his other starter.

"An off-track is going to help some horses and hurt some others," Pletcher said. "You've just got to go out there and do it."

Nick Zito might be the trainer who is happiest about the prospect of stormy weather. His horses, Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, were the last ones to win on rainy Derby days. He'll saddle early 4-1 favorite The Cliff's Edge and Birdstone.

Then there's Borrego, whose sire El Prado is known for producing colts who like off-tracks.

There was a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms by post time of 6:04 p.m. EDT.

If it rains, mud could obscure the corporate logos that several jockeys plan to wear for the first time in the Derby on their right pants leg, where the most TV exposure is possible.

"I see what it's done for NASCAR and the PGA Tour and they've risen to the forefront way beyond horse racing," said Jerry Bailey, who lost his Derby mount on injured Wimbledon. "It's a good thing for everybody involved."

It could be a good day for bettors, too, since a winning Derby ticket was expected to bring a handsome payoff. The 3-year-old picture was muddled all winter, with 25 different horses winning the 28 stakes races on the Derby trail.

Bobby Frankel is one of the best handicappers among trainers, and even he was uncertain. He'll saddle Master David in pursuit of his first Derby victory after finishing second last year.

"Quintons Gold Rush looks like the kind of horse to me who is going to go early" to the lead, he said. "I think Smarty Jones will go, too. If Lion Heart takes enough heat early, it opens the race up for everyone else."

Smarty Jones was the 9-2 second choice. He had more at stake than his 17 rivals. He could earn a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park for sweeping the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott are both in the Derby for the first time. So are Tapit's trainer Michael Dickinson and jockey Ramon Dominguez. No first-time trainer and jockey duo has won since Bud Delp trained and Ronnie Franklin rode Spectacular Bid in 1979.

With 18 starters, the purse is $1,154,800, with the winner's share $854,800.

The race lost Wimbledon (leg injury) and St Averil (tender feet).

Don't look for trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas in the winner's circle. Baffert, a three-time winner, trained Wimbledon. Four-time winner Lukas didn't have a good 3-year-old this year. It'll be the first Derby since 1980 that one or both didn't have a horse in the race.

"This is part of the business we never get used to," said Baffert, who hasn't missed the race since sending out his first starter in 1996.

Among the other story lines in the one-and-a-quarter mile Derby:

-Kristin Mulhall, who trains Imperialism, and Jennifer Pedersen, who saddles Song of the Sword, were attempting to become the first women to win the Derby. At 21, Mulhall would be the youngest trainer to win.

-New York breds will be present again in Florida Derby winner Friends Lake and Fountain of Youth winner Read the Footnotes. Last year, Funny Cide became the first New York bred to win. Both are coming into the Derby off seven-week layoffs. That hasn't worked since Needles won in 1956 after not racing in April.

Friends Lake won the Sleepy Hollow Stakes on a wet track, but his come-from-behind running style could be a problem. "He's going to get a lot of stuff kicked in his face, and he'll have to be brave," trainer John Kimmel said.

-Action This Day is trying to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby. Nineteen others have failed. Trainer Richard Mandella also has Minister Eric in the race.