04/02/2007 11:00PM

Approaching crunch time


According to trainer Todd Pletcher, Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy will try to replicate Barbaro's accomplishment by skipping directly to the Kentucky Derby without another race. In the meantime, the majority of Derby contenders - including six more trained by Pletcher - will compete in one of the six major Derby preps during the next three weeks to see if they truly belong in the field.

In the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct this Saturday, for example, trainer Barclay Tagg will equip the promising Nobiz Like Shobiz with blinkers for the first time in the hopes that it will help cure the colt's tendency to bear in erratically, a flaw that contributed to his third-place finish behind Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Should the blinkers experiment fail, Nobiz Like Shobiz will be hard to support on Derby Day.

The Wood also will be the final prep race for Pletcher's stretch-running Circular Quay, who has a penchant for lagging well behind the field until he gets his mind on running. While the Derby can be won by a deep closer, such horses are usually in need of a pace meltdown and it will be interesting to see if any serious front-running horses emerge from the Wood or the other prep races.

The prep race schedule also includes the Santa Anita Derby and the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on Saturday; the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 14; and the 1 1/16-mile Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 21.

As these races unfold, players should have a clear-cut idea what to look for to project a top performance on Derby Day. Of course, there always is room for a new shooter to emerge, just as Charismatic did in the 1999 Lexington and War Emblem in the 2002 Illinois Derby. The most accomplished contenders are listed below in alphabetical order, with the key issues stated for each.

Any Given Saturday (Blue Grass): Highly rated Pletcher trainee has looked good in his two starts this year and might only need an even performance with a good gallop-out to be set for a forward move on Derby Day.

Bwana Bull (Santa Anita Derby): Won the California and El Camino derbies in Northern California as if he is capable of better. Probably must win a relatively weak Santa Anita Derby to justify optimism for his chances in Louisville.

Cobalt Blue (Illinois Derby): Controlled the pace to win a relatively soft San Felipe Stakes on March 17. This late-emerging Doug O'Neill trainee will need to show that he can cope with more pace and stronger competition to be taken seriously on Derby Day.

Cowtown Cat (Illinois Derby): Pletcher-trained Gotham winner leaves New York for a seemingly easier spot. Still, must improve over his previous performances to rate with the big guns.

Curlin (Arkansas Derby): Very exciting prospect with two big wins in two career starts - one a maiden sprint, the other a 1o1/16-mile stakes - is being rushed a bit to make the Kentucky Derby. Will have to run strongly without excess effort at Oaklawn to avoid a serious Derby Day bounce.

Deadly Dreamer (Arkansas Derby): Very lightly raced, high-class prospect earned a 104 Beyer Speed Figure in his allowance win at Gulfstream on March 3. Just might force his way into Pletcher's Derby army, or be reserved for summer stakes.

Great Hunter (Blue Grass): His strong, smooth win in the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita on March 3 was a pluperfect race for a Derby horse, and if it is followed by another solid effort and good gallop-out, his limited prep race campaign might work. The positive key for this O'Neill trainee is linked to the spacing of his two races and his handy running style.

Hard Spun (Blue Grass): Loved his rebound to form in the nine-furlong Lane's End at Turfway Park on March 24. Resembled 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones by flashing speed to secure a good early position from the outside and then capped off the performance with a serious late spurt away from rivals in the upper stretch. If Hard Spun repeats this effort in the Blue Grass, watch out on Derby Day, even though he will be going from Polytrack to dirt at Churchill.

King of the Roxy (Santa Anita Derby): Earned a solid Beyer Speed Figure (103) winning the Hutcheson Stakes at 7 1/2 furlongs March 3 and now must prove to Pletcher that he can run just as well around two turns.

Liquidity (Santa Anita Derby): Been training forwardly since his lackluster Louisiana Derby performance, and we will see by his performance in the Santa Anita Derby if that was a fluke and if he really has turned the corner as O'Neill has publicly stated.

Nobiz Like Shobiz (Wood): If he advances with a smooth performance, he will be a major force in Louisville; if not, there may be a hidden physical issue, or perhaps he will need more time to develop.

Sam P. (Illinois Derby): Pletcher trainee was second in the Robert Lewis to Great Hunter, but must do much better at Hawthorne to deserve a trip to Louisville.

Street Sense (Blue Grass): Juvenile champion's narrow win over Any Given Saturday in his 2007 debut at Tampa Bay Downs on March 17 was a scintillating, if not gut-wrenching, performance. It also set up a quandary for highly skilled trainer Carl Nafzger. While Street Sense could win the Blue Grass or any other race on his best day, he might gain more from an evenly paced effort at Keeneland instead of another hard-fought stretch battle. Otherwise, this colt will require special handling during Derby week to assure his fitness from only two prep races for the 10-furlong Derby.

Summer Doldrums (Wood): Won the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct in February before he ran a seemingly lazy race in the Gotham on March 10. However, a closer look at that race reveals that Summer Doldrums found his best stride nearing the wire before he galloped out strongly. Would be worth following if he puts it all together in his next.

Teuflesberg (Arkansas Derby): Sturdy sort has shown good overall speed for a mile, but only a clear-cut victory at Oaklawn will show that he might sustain his form at longer distances.

Notional, Chelokee, Stormello, and Adore the Gold all ran in the Florida Derby and may or may not come back in the Lexington. Of these, the late-developing Chelokee showed the most promise, finishing third after encountering trouble to Scat Daddy and showing good late energy.