04/10/2006 11:00PM

And let's not forget First Samurai

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LAS VEGAS - Because of its date on the racing calendar and its location at Keeneland in the heart of the Thoroughbred industry, the Blue Grass Stakes has always been an important prep for the Kentucky Derby. This year's race should provide great theater because of three major colts: First Samurai, Bluegrass Cat, and Strong Contender.

There has been much speculation that First Samurai may not want 1 1/4 miles, but his pedigree suggests he should not have a problem with distance.

Most of the runners by his sire, Giant's Causeway, have found success on turf, and First Samurai was really the first Giant's Causeway colt to show such high quality on dirt. Noble Causeway, a member of Giant's Causeway's first crop who was on the 2005 Triple Crown trail after finishing second in the Florida Derby, appeared ready for stardom but went wrong after leaving Florida and is just now trying to regain his good form.

First Samurai was on his way to a championship at 2 after winning the Hopeful and Champagne stakes, but he was derailed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finiahing third behind Stevie Wonderboy, who went on to win the Eclipse for champion 2-year-old. Because he has not actually crossed the finish line first this year and many of his contemporaries have found success at 3, First Samurai has lost the luster that made him a standout last year.

Because of his achievements last year, graded earnings for the Derby are not an issue with First Samurai, but a return to his brilliant form in the Blue Grass may be a reminder of just how good he is. First Samurai's race in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes was more intense than usual for the season debut of a 3-year-old whose ultimate quest is the Kentucky Derby. Running into a very talent sprinter-miler in Keyed Entry, First Samurai finished second in sizzling time. It was his defeat to rising star Corinthian in the Fountain of Youth, however, that raised eyebrows. Even though he was impeded by Corinthian's erratic stretch run, he was never going to beat Corinthian, who was simply much the best that day.

But it just may be too early to dismiss First Samurai, especially over a speed-favoring surface at Keeneland, which should suit him. Again, he faces quality runners who have just as much speed - Bluegrass Cat and Strong Contender. All three have similar running styles, and although they all prefer to sit off the pace, one of them will be on the lead, most likely First Samurai or Bluegrass Cat. History has shown that front-runners over this surface have always been rewarded.

The bigger question is not who will win the Blue Grass, but how will this race affect the Derby? Will a front-running victory by Bluegrass Cat (by Storm Cat) really enhance his chances over an entirely different surface at Louisville against so many colts with his running style going 1 1/4 miles? Will another second-place finish be a perfect prep for First Samurai, or will a victory prove he is back and can be just as effective at 1 1/4 miles?

And what about Strong Contender? A winner of his only start last year at Arlington Park, he returned at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22 with a stunning victory at one mile, immediately jumping on every wise guy's Derby list. Strong Contender, a son of Maria's Mon, was unable to get into the Lane's End Stakes on March 25, because he didn't have sufficient earnings to break into the field, and his trainer, John Ward, was forced to call an audible and will use the Blue Grass as his final prep. It seems highly unlikely, however, that a colt with only two starts at 3 and just one start at 2 could win such a demanding race as the Kentucky Derby, no matter how talented he may be. And then there is the question of graded earnings. Strong Contender would have to win or be second to even get into this year's crowded Derby field.

If you are looking for a longshot to upset the big three or possibly complete the exotics, use Little Cliff. Always highly regarded by trainer Nick Zito, Little Cliff has shown glimpses of talent and just may wake up in Kentucky, like so many 3-year-olds have been known to do at this time of year. Halory Hunter, who was third in the 1998 Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes for Zito, blossomed with the change of venue and won the Blue Grass Stakes.