04/10/2002 11:00PM

Achievement small, potential huge

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There seems to be a great deal of consternation about the contenders for the Kentucky Derby, but if the result were apparent beforehand, why bother to run the race? The Derby horses this year are not as inconsistent as the classic crop of 1974, when no colt seemed able to win two races in a row. And when the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home," either Came Home or Harlan's Holiday might be the favorite, and there will be three or four sensible contenders orbiting around them.

But if the current crop is lacking in proven excellence at the moment, it certainly doesn't lack for potential. And the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Saturday is the race with the most intriguing band of rowdy colts hoping to make some noise.

Chief among the up-and-comers is Saarland, a growthy colt by Unbridled out of Versailles Treaty who seems to be everyone's pick on pedigree. Although he could certainly get good 2-year-olds (remember Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners Anees and Unbridled's Song?), Unbridled was primarily a sire of big, strong horses who stay classic distances. His son Grindstone won the Kentucky Derby, and Red Bullet upset Fusaichi Pegasus in the Preakness.

In addition to the expectations that breeders and owners have for the offspring of Unbridled, Saarland showed graded stakes form at the end of his juvenile season, making alert observers on the racetrack believe that he will improve much more than average as a 3-year-old. So sire power and expectations of great progress are strong factors behind the general perception that Saarland is the sleeper in the Derby crowd.

If those expectations are justified, the colt should have little trouble winning the Wood.

But if Saarland doesn't win, several other colts are waiting in the wings for a chance on stage. Medaglia d'Oro and Blue Burner are the most likely threats to Saarland, and a good case can be made for each.

In the case of Medaglia d'Oro, he is a lightly raced but promising colt trained by Bobby Frankel. His trainer's lengthy run of successes will bring him support, and his effort in the San Felipe is a good indication of his ability.

In terms of pedigree, Medaglia d'Oro is by the most successful American-based son of Sadler's Wells, El Prado. Sadler's Wells is the best stallion in Europe, without any doubt. Not surprisingly, most of the sons of Sadler's Wells are in Europe, where their sire dominates. A juvenile champion himself, El Prado has followed the typical pattern of sons of Sadler's Wells in siring stock that stay well, and he has had most of his success in America with turf runners.

Blue Burner, who ran well in the Florida Derby, has hopes of winning a high-class race and also should run well in a race with the Derby's typically insane pace. It is questionable how he will fare if the pace in the Wood is more pedestrian, however.

A son of French Deputy, Blue Burner is a grandson of leading sire Deputy Minister. Although French Deputy was sold to the Japanese, his runners in America have been doing better and better. Furthermore, this colt is out of the Alydar mare Haiati, who was a very good racemare, placing in a Group 2 race in England at 2 and in three graded events in America at 4.

The colt in the race with the most to prove is Nokoma. He works well, looks good, and runs so-so. This is all the more problematic, as his best form was in the Remsen last fall behind Saarland. From the first crop by A.P. Indy's son Pulpit, Nokoma needs to get home first if he is to join Pulpit's other classic hope, Essence of Dubai, in the crowd of Derby contenders.

Behind this quartet is a pair of horses people are talking about, Sunday Break and Buddha.

Each is lightly raced, highly promising, and out of a mare by Storm Cat.

That in itself is enough to get them noticed, but Sunday Break is out of the most successful daughter of Storm Cat in Japan, a mare named Catequil. She has already produced the major Japanese stakes winner Phalaenopsis, and Sunday Break is by leading American sire Forty Niner. Forty Niner has not had a top horse in Japan, and it would be interesting if his best Japanese-bred offspring proved himself while racing in the U.S. By Unbridled's Song, Buddha is out of Storm Cat's daughter Cahooters and was a very good sales horse, bringing $250,000 as a yearling.