Trainers coddling their colts

Is it my imagination or have there been far fewer injuries on the road to the Kentucky Derby than in recent years? Believe me, if this is true it’s a good thing.

I visited Churchill Downs’ roadtotheroses.com Web site, which contains a list of horses that have been taken “off the trail.” With seven weeks to the Derby, only three horses are listed, and only one, Crown of Thorns, was a big loss. Crown of Thorns, who won the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, has sore shins and will be given time off.

The second horse was Mushka, a filly. A filly shouldn’t be on the Derby list. The third was Slew’s Tiznow, who hasn’t had a timed workout in 2008.

Autism Awareness, the $126 long shot winner of the El Camino Real Derby, was not listed because he’s not nominated for the Derby. He had a bone chip removed and will be sidelined.

So, if those are the big horses out of action on the road to the Kentucky Derby, keep knocking on wood.

Horses lose valuable training time because of small setbacks that make the Preakness or Belmont Stakes more reasonable targets. That’s part of what makes winning the Triple Crown so difficult. Fresh, talented 3-year-olds are joining the Triple Crown fray on a delayed basis.

Trainers in recent years have practiced the “less is more” theory in preparing Derby hopefuls. Maybe this coddling of colts is working out.

Last year’s Triple Crown stars — Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun — ran well all year without missing a beat. That was part genetics, part luck. However, trainers Carl Nafzger, Steve Asmussen and Larry Jones deserve kudos for protecting their superstars.

There are four big preps this weekend: the San Felipe, Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel and WinStar Derby. Here’s who I like in each stakes.

The San Felipe at Santa Anita has too many distanced-challenged runners. I like Shediak, a French import, now in the Doug O’Neill barn. He looks like a classy animal with a strong grass and distance pedigree.

The Tampa Bay Derby looks too easy for War Pass. It’s hard to imagine him losing except for the unforeseen.

The Rebel looks ripe for Z Fortune despite a poor post. In the Risen Star, Z Fortune lost to stablemate Pyro but beat Visionaire. Next time out, Pyro won the Louisiana Derby and Visionaire won the Gotham. Handicappers call that a key race.

Finally, the WinStar Derby has the largest purse, $600,000, but is ungraded, which won’t help any of the top finishers make the Derby field. Winsome Charm, for trainer Jeff Mullins, looks like the right horse. He drew an inside post, has tactical speed and Santa Anita class.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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