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Wood a crossroad for Derby hopeful War Pass

A trainer of racehorses goes to the paddock and saddles his animal. He has expectations but is also prepared to see them vaporized in an instant of misfortune. Trainers and horseplayers become familiar with instants of misfortune.

The owner watches, always uneasily and with an eye on every other horse in the ring. Owners also have expectations but usually defer to those of the trainer. Their own are more optimistic.

Then, at the moment the trainers give their riders a leg up and they part company, everyone goes to their seats and helpless to do more, hopes for the best. There is no control after that point, no input. Horses and riders fade into a distant dots and sometimes the misfortune they encounter before returning defies explanation -- even when the horse in considered the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.

At the gate, trainers, owners and horseplayers hold their collective breath. Races are lost at the gate, never won. Weeks, or months of preparation is sometimes squandered in the first violent jump from the barrier.

Prior to March 15, trainer Nick Zito and owner Robert LaPenta had watched War Pass blister the competition in each of five consecutive wins including the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, the biggest race a 2-year-old could win before the establishment of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which he won, too. On three of those days, Pyro, who is in many quarters considered the favorite to win the May 3 Kentucky Derby, finished second without threatening War Pass, who was 1-20 when he went to the post at Tampa Bay Downs for the eponymous derby.

Before either man drew a breath, War Pass, usually a rocket leaving the gate, reared slightly, broke a half-step slow and was bumped from both sides, enough to cost him the race under the best of circumstance. Though he had never before found himself behind horses at any call of five races, Was Pass appeared to have put himself in position to recover, close behind the leaders in the run down the backstretch. But he never appeared comfortable and, as if possessed by the spirit of a horse who cannot run, War Pass began laboring on the stretch turn and yielded ground until he was last of seven to reach the wire. By any measure, the Tampa Bay Derby was a disaster for War Pass, whose Eclipse Award earned last year has not yet required dusting, and his connections.

"Like any disaster, it's not one thing that usually causes it to happen, it's a chain of events," LaPenta said. "You know, it's not just that he broke out of the gate late. It's not just that he got bumped. If you spoke to (jockey Cornelio Velasquez) he'd say he was in an uncomfortable position with War Pass he didn't know what to do."

While some handicappers expect War Pass to confront distance limitations, he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile convincingly at 1 1/16 miles, the distance of the race in Tampa. Distance was not an issue in Florida. If War Pass left the impression that he is a need-the-lead type that will be certified at some point. The dominant 2-year-old of 2007 raised many questions at Tampa that have lingered since mid March and the search for answers has become a cold case.

When a horse whose ability is a matter of record, a champion, runs a race as dismal as was War Pass' effort in Tampa, there is always a reason, usually evident. But neither Zito nor the veterinarians summoned to examine War Pass found a source on which to blame effort too bad to be true. Was Pass was fine the next morning and the morning after that. When he returned to the track, War Pass trained with the energy typical of what Zito had come to expect.

Charting a course from winter to the Kentucky Derby may not be an exact science but there is little room for setback and less for mystery but War Pass attempts to put both behind him on Saturday at Aqueduct, where he will face nine 3-year-olds in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

"He's fine," Zito said. "I expect him to roll out of there on Saturday the way he always has. His work last week was great. From what I can see, he's going to put in a good effort."

LaPenta has replayed the race in Tampa more times than he can count but the implausible result remains unexplained. The owner suspects, however, that a displaced palate was the source of War Pass' troubles.

"We all saw him at the top of the stretch, struggling," LaPenta said. "That was not the horse we saw three weeks earlier that basically cruised to (a mile in) 1:36 and came into the winners' circle without even breathing heavy. That was a horse that at the top of the stretch was in distress. I guess the most plausible explanation is that he flipped his palate. We scoped him after the race. There was no congestion. There were no issues. But for a horse to be in that much distress, I'd only have to say that that, to me, is the most probable explanation."

With the exception of Inner Light, the apparent rabbit entered by trainer Bill Mott on behalf of stablemate Court Vision, the Wood is critical to the Derby prospects of all the participants, a group that includes the Barclay Tagg-trained Tale of Ekati and Gotham Stakes runner-up Texas Wildcatter. But the light of scrutiny shines most brightly on War Pass. A detour on the road to Kentucky can be overcome but not a poor effort in a final prep. A poor effort in the Wood will, LaPenta said, send everyone involved back to the drawing board.

"Because of what happened, I don't think he got the workout that we were hoping he'd get in a mile-and-a-sixteenth race," LaPenta said. "So we come to the Wood, I think, wanting to see War Pass back to his old form. And frankly, whether he wins or not is not a big issue for me. I just want to see him running and healthy and really moving forward in this race. If I told you I was confident, I wouldn't be telling the truth. But if War Pass gets out on the lead, he's going to be tough to catch. That's all I could tell you."

Zito sees the Tampa Bay disaster as a bump in the road to Kentucky that War Pass can overcome. "I'm apprehensive, excited, happy -- and cautious," he said. "I'm a fan, too, and I want to see a horse like War Pass run big."

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.