Cormorant, early second choice for the Kentucky Derby, is suffering from a virus and may not be able to run in the classic May 7 at Church Downs.

"We've got a sick horse," trainer Jimmy Simpson said yesterday morning outside Barn 6 at Laurel. "Sunday at 4, when we checked on him, we noticed he hadn't eaten all his grain. His temperature was a little over 103. It's down to a little over 101 today but I had hoped the blast of antibiotics Dr. (Ralph) Yergy gave him would drive him right down to normal (99 to 100 degrees).

"It didn't. So I don't see much chance of getting to Kentucky."

Cormorant, defeated only once in eight starts (he bolted in his first race in June), was to have worked five furlongs yesterday at Laurel, then ship today to Kenneland to prepare for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 28.

"I had decided to go there rather than the Wood Memorial in New York," Simpson explained. "Clev Er Tell is going to go against Seattle Slew in the Wood. Had we run there, it would have meant the three most formidable Derby horses being in the same race. Run Dusty RUn is the other top horse, in Kentucky, and there was a chance the race would be split."

For Simpson, a veteran training the best prospect of his career in Cormorant, the hardest part of his day was having to call the 3-year-old ridgling's owner, Charles T. Berry of Upperville, Va., with the disappointing news.

"The Berrys are good people who know what it's all about, fortunately," Simpson said. "They know what it's like to encounter bad luck with mares or foals. But that was the worst thing I had to do. Myself, it's not the end of the world. It's something you can live with. It's not like Cormorant chipped a knee or bowed a tendon. The lure of the Triple Crown never bothered me much, but it would have been nice to go down there with this horse. Maybe we still can."

Although Cormorant's illness is not serious, it could not be occurred at a more inopportune time, with the trainer zeroing in on an objective only 19 days away.

"This bug, this virus, is all around, here at Laurel and especially up at Pimlico," Simpson noted. "The last time Cormorant got sick was the day before the Laurel Futurity last fall, and he had to miss that one.

"Cormorant needs another tough race before the Derby. I had planned on the Blue Grass. Now, maybe, the Stepping Stone (at Churchill Downs, April 30) is possible. The Derby trial the Tuesday before the Derby is out. But the Stepping Stone is what, only seven furlongs."

The Derby distance is a mile and a quarter. Cormorant's victories this season have been at six furlongs twice, in the Iroquois at Garden Statae and the Bay Shore at Aqueduct, and over a mile and a 1/16 in the Gotham at Aqueduct.

"He was on schedule. I like the fact that he had won around two turns in the Gotham," Simpson said. "I don't know that he had beaten anything. Then again, I'm not so sure Seattle Slew has beaten much, although my horse is not the same type. He doesn't run like a wild horse. Evenwhen he won by five or six (lengths) it was with his ears pricking and the jock just tapping' (with the stick)."

Simpson must revise his master plan now and proceed on a day-to-day basis, hoping Cormorant will recover extra quickly in time for a hurry-up approach to the Derby, or else await the Preakness at Pimlico, May 21.

"The best I can hope for," Simpson said, "is his temperature to get back to normal later today or tomorrow; to hope this thing doesn't hang on. If it does, for four or five days, I'm dead. Even if it clars up fast it will mean two or three days of his walking around the shedrow, to see if he stays normal, with no coughing. Then I gallop him for three or four days, then breeze him."