04/28/2004 11:00PM

Anybody's guess to wear roses

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There have been 28 unrestricted graded stakes races for 3-year-olds on the dirt in the United States so far this year. They have produced 25 different winners. Only three horses have been able to win two, and two of those horses are entered in Saturday's 130th at Churchill Downs.

But no one is running to the hills to flee Imperialism or Limehouse. No one's much running away from anyone. Come one, come all 20. A full field of 20 is entered in this year's Derby, which is acknowledged as the most competitive, wide-open Derby in years.

And as if this year's inscrutable preps aren't enough of to give handicappers a headache, an added factor may get thrown their way on Saturday - the potential for a wet track. The National Weather Service is predicting thunderstorms, following a day of isolated showers on Friday. The predicted high temperature is 74 degrees.

The more than 140,000 fans expected for this Derby will find a Churchill Downs that is the midst of a construction project that will not be completed until next year. A number of box-seat holders, and celebrities accustomed to Millionaire's Row, have been moved to temporary spots this year. But the Jockey Club Suites, which debuted last year, will handle thousands of high rollers and corporate bigwigs.

Space was at a premium in the starting gate, too. There were 22 horses entered in the Derby, but a maximum of 20 are permitted to start. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten were excluded because they have insufficient earnings in graded stakes races, the tiebreaker. But both colts, who are considered among the most promising of this 3-year-old crop, are pointing to the May 15 Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, and will be laying in wait for the Derby winner.

Handicappers who can divine the outcome of this Derby should be richly rewarded. "Whoever hits the trifecta can buy a new Mercedes, and whoever hits the superfecta can by a new house," said John T. Ward Jr., who trained Monarchos to win the Derby in 2001.

If all 20 entrants run, the Derby's purse will be $1,214,800, with $914,800 going to the winner. But owners, trainers, and jockeys are chasing greater glory. "It's not about the money," said Bob Baffert, who will seek his fourth Derby victory with Wimbledon and has been openly critical of the Derby's relatively low purse; the Breeders' Cup Classic is worth four times as much money. "It's an emotional race. It's been around so long. It's a dream."

Twenty horses will be led over from the stables, but only one will go back with roses draped around his withers. Only one will have his name inscribed for eternity next to the paddock at Churchill Downs. Only one will move on to the Preakness with a chance to become the sport's first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Who will it be? Based on this year's prep races, you could run this Derby 10 times, and get 10 different winners.

"There's eight or nine, maybe 10 or 12, who, if they run their best race, can win the race," said John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones. "It's a very wide-open race."

So much so that Smarty Jones, who enters the Derby unbeaten in six starts, is not the morning-line favorite. That role has fallen to The Cliff's Edge, the winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, who along with stablemate Birdstone will seek to give trainer Nick Zito his third Derby victory.

"One thing about this race - if they get right at the right time, watch out," Zito said.

Tapit visited the track for the first time on Thursday after arriving Wednesday afternoon. Asked if remaining at his Tapeta Farm in Maryland gave him a competitive edge, trainer Michael Dickinson said, "The competitive edge I've got is I've got Tapit."

Pro Prado, one of the race's longshots, was the only Derby horse to work on Thursday. He went three furlongs in 36.60 seconds.

The only commonality among this year's Derby runners is that each will race as a separate betting interest and will carry 126 pounds. Nothing else is the same.

They are not even competing for the same prize money. Smarty Jones, who is adding Lasix for the first time, is seeking the richest payday in racing history. He can earn a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park for sweeping the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. Half that bonus is insured, the other half would come out of the pocket of Charles Cella, Oaklawn's owner.

Servis and Stewart Elliott, who rides Smarty Jones, are both in the Derby for the first time. So, too, are Tapit's team of Dickinson and jockey Ramon Dominguez. No first-time trainer and jockey combination has won the Derby since Bud Delp and Ronnie Franklin with Spectacular Bid in 1979.

Kristin Mulhall, the trainer of Imperialism, and Jennifer Pedersen, the trainer of Song of the Sword, are seeking to become the first females to win the Derby. Mulhall, 21, would become the youngest trainer to win the Derby.

Friends Lake, the Florida Derby winner, and Read the Footnotes, who won the Fountain of Youth Stakes, are both coming into the race off a seven-week layoff. No horse has won the Derby without racing in April since Needles in 1956. Both Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes are New York-breds, as was the 2003 winner, Funny Cide.

Friends Lake and Smarty Jones have been known to balk at the starting gate, so they will bear watching as the horses are being loaded. Roger Nagel, Churchill's starter, has informed trainer John Kimmel that Friends Lake will be the first horse loaded into the starting gate.

Action This Day is trying to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to capture the Derby. His trainer, Richard Mandella, also is represented by Minister Eric.

In addition to Mandella and Zito, Todd Pletcher will saddle two runners, Limehouse and Pollard's Vision. Pollard's Vision is blind in his right eye. Though no records are kept on such an esoteric statistic, it is believed he would be the first horse with that impairment to win the Derby.

In such a large field, trips will be paramount. Lion Heart is the acknowledged front-runner, but as many as a dozen horses have the potential to be laying just off the pace. A traffic jam at the first turn seems inevitable.

"I've watched a lot of Derbies," Servis said. "If you get off a step slow, then everyone comes over on you, and then you want to run but you have nowhere to go. It snowballs from there."

It's spring, but you still have to dodge the snowballs.