05/03/2006 11:00PM

All three favorites have their flaws


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The best thing that could happen for future Kentucky Derbies would be for Saturday's renewal to produce a formful and logical result, which might restore some seriousness and encourage some restraint going forward. Horsemen and bettors alike are still reeling from Giacomo's implausible victory last year, entering and backing abjectly unqualified horses under the theory that if Giacomo could win the 131st Derby, anyone can win the 132nd.

This does not mean that everyone should rush to back the track's three morning-line favorites, Brother Derek at 3-1 and Lawyer Ron and Barbaro at 4-1 each. It seems unlikely that all members of that trio will actually go off quite so low as their morning-line odds, or that any three horses could account for half the action in a 20-horse field after what happened last year. But even at 4-1, 5-1 and 6-1, this year's favorites deserve to be viewed with some skepticism, and there may be better value to be found without resorting to a dart board.

Brother Derek has done nothing wrong since running a tepid fourth at 56-1 in the Breeders' Cup six months ago, but has been thrashing the same indifferent Californians ever since while enjoying easy leads and perfect trips. Even so, he seems the most solid of the three favorites, and while I can't take him at a short price, I won't leave him off the bottom of moonshot trifecta and superfectas.

Lawyer Ron, on the other hand, can beat me. The idea that he is as good as Smarty Jones or Afleet Alex just because he, too, won the Arkansas Derby ignores that his sweep of Oaklawn's Derby preps was

accomplished with subpar Beyer Speed Figures of 98, 94, and 95. His one triple-digit figure four starts back looks more and more like a fluke, and his slow come-home times do not bode well for attempting a 10th furlong.

Barbaro is undefeated yet unproven, a clearly talented and versatile horse who may turn out to be a grass champion but whose dirt form remains suspect. In his lone fast-track race, he labored to beat the stretching-out sprinter Sharp Humor in unimpressive time, and is worth playing against at 4-1.

So who are the intriguing alternatives?

Sweetnorthernsaint is as fast as anyone but will be twice the price of the favorites because he once raced for a tag and his biggest day came in the Illinois rather than Santa Anita, Arkansas or Florida Derby. His four first-place finishes have been achieved by a combined 43 lengths and his lone defeat on the dirt came with some excuses, stalking a slow pace while wide on Aqueduct's inner track.

Showing Up is a good horse who is spotting the field a great deal of seasoning and experience, but unlike others whose best we may have seen, he has extraordinary upside. It may be asking too much for him to win the Derby in his fourth career start, but at 20-1 the undefeated colt may have more room to improve than anyone.

We may have seen the best of Bluegrass Cat when he won the Nashua and Remsen last fall, but he, too, is eligible to move forward and merits some consideration at 30-1. His season debut in the Sam F. Davis was an excellent comeback race, he threw a shoe when beaten at short odds in the Tampa Bay Derby, and his Blue Grass was so wretched it should probably be ignored.

I know in my head that Jazil probably isn't fast enough to win, but I'm a little bit married to him and he's going to be gaining quickly at the end of a race that could be melting down. At 30-1 I'll take my chances he can pass at least 16 of them late for a minor award that could lead to a major trifecta or superfecta.

So let's go with Sweetnorthernsaint, Showing Up, Bluegrass Cat, and Jazil in that order, with a small saver on Sinister Minister, the fastest horse in the race. War Emblem was worth a flyer at 20-1 in 2002, while Bellamy Road was no bargain at 5-2 a year ago. Sinister Minister should be somewhere in between those prices, and his spectacular Blue Grass was in the same rarefied territory as War Emblem's Illinois Derby or Bellamy Road's Wood. He's iffy at the distance and his record is erratic, but at 12-1 he can be used defensively just in case he replicates that effort.

A year ago in an online chat, I'm pretty sure I gave out the $9,814.80 Derby exacta of Giacomo and Closing Argument; unfortunately, I'm entirely sure it was in response to the question "Give me five horses I can confidently throw out." So when Seaside Retreat noses out Storm Treasure on Saturday, just remember, you heard it here first.