04/13/2004 11:00PM

Art meets science in Derby pairing

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It's a classic dilemma. Trips versus figures. Subjective versus objective. Visual impressions versus mathematical calculations. It's Tapit versus The Cliff's Edge. Who looks better for the Kentucky Derby?

By any visual measure, Tapit ran tremendously in the Wood Memorial. After he was allowed to trail the field early, Tapit moved up impressively, and effortlessly, along the backstretch. Then he settled into position three or four lengths behind the leaders on the turn, just waiting for the stretch run. He angled out five wide at the top of the stretch and, after lugging in slightly and seeming to stall in midstretch, closed powerfully in the last 60 yards. His multi-move effort, his long strides, and his growing experience all bode well for his Derby chances. And his trainer, Michael Dickinson, insists that Tapit has not been nearly 100 percent fit for his two races in 2004. So we can expect an even more powerful run on the first Saturday in May.

There is only one problem with this scenario: While he was indeed visually impressive in the Wood, Tapit earned a Beyer Speed Figure of only 98. Compared to the figures recorded by recent Derby winners in their final pre-Derby prep, that's a very low number.

2003Funny Cide110

2002War Emblem112

2001Monarchos103

2000Fusaichi Pegasus111

1999Charismatic108

1998Real Quiet107

1997Silver Charm110

1996Grindstone100

1995Thunder Gulch101

1994Go for Gin107

1993Sea Hero91

1992Lil E. Tee106

Perhaps there is some encouragement for Tapit in the pre-Derby figures of Monarchos, Grindstone, Thunder Gulch, and Sea Hero. But the patterns with these four are very different from Tapit's. Monarchos, for example, had earned Beyer Figures of 103-105-103 just before his Derby win in 2001. And that 105 came after a powerful wide move in the Florida Derby. Grindstone had earned Beyers of 102 and 100 in his pre-Derby efforts. Thunder Gulch recorded Beyers of 105-101-101 (the last figure coming despite a ton of trouble). Sea Hero broke all the "rules," jumping up from a 91 to win the slowest Derby in recent memory.

Clearly, the history of recent Derby winners provides little encouragement for Tapit's chances. After all, he has never earned a triple-digit Beyer in his brief career. But Tapit did earn a 98 around two turns as a 2-year-old in November, a sure indication that he has the ability to run triple-digit Beyers as a more mature 3-year-old. (Sea Hero had a 99 in winning the Champagne as a 2-year-old. He won the Derby with a 105.) And he is moving in the right direction, running an 83 in his initial effort this year, and then improving up to a 98 in the Wood. He should continue to improve. But will he improve enough? Will he be able to move up into the Beyer-benchmark zone of 108-109 earned by most Derby winners?

The case of The Cliff's Edge is totally different. By any visual measure, he looked much less impressive than Tapit. He sat a perfect trip throughout the Toyota Blue Grass. But his big Beyer of 111 is much more in line with the pre-Derby preps of previous Derby winners. The fact that he jumped up sharply from mediocre efforts of 88 and 90 in his first two races in 2004 could present a problem. He could bounce in the Derby. But you have to be very careful in dismissing such bounce candidates when they are young, developing, lightly raced 3-year-olds. You really don't know where their "top" really is at this early stage in their careers. And there are many recent examples of Derby winners repeating seemingly "peak" efforts earned in their final prep.

So, where do you give the edge? Trips or figs? Tapit or The Cliff's Edge? Of course, that's only one of a multitude of questions for this year's Derby. But it's a fascinating story line. And it should add some additional interest to what is shaping up as a truly mind-bending handicapping challenge.