04/02/2008 11:00PM

Artiste Royal in favorable spot

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NEW YORK - For sheer volume of rich and highly graded stakes races, Saturday might be the most important racing day so far this year in this country. But the primary focus will be on the three big Kentucky Derby preps - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.

Arcadia Handicap

Daytona will be a deserving favorite in this race. He boasts three straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, and though his win streak was stopped at four when he finished third in the Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap last time out, he ran on a yielding turf course that he might not have really liked. Daytona will get the firm footing he prefers Saturday. The speed of Storm Military, and the sprint speed Hyperbaric showed in his return from a long layoff, however, are a concern. They could compromise Daytona, who likes to operate on the early lead.

This is a great setup for Artiste Royal, not only pace-wise but pattern-wise. Although Artiste Royal was no match in the recent Kilroe Mile for Ever a Friend, who ran out of his mind that day, he did willingly pass opponents to finish second in his first start off a layoff. The last time Artiste Royal made a second start off a layoff was last fall, and he showed dramatic improvement to win the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch over the highly accomplished The Tin Man.

Bay Shore Stakes

I picked J Be K when he started in the Louisiana Derby, and I have no business complaining after he finished a distant eighth. But I'm still mystified over how he was used in that race. J Be K was the lone speed on paper, and it was easy envisioning him having a clear early lead through soft fractions. The big questions he had to answer were, could he get two turns, and was he good enough for Pyro? Instead, despite breaking cleanly, J Be K conceded the early lead to My Pal Charlie, who set a modest pace and wound up finishing second at 60-1. And when J Be K tired in the final furlong, he was wrapped up.

In any event, J Be K is off the Derby trail, and since there's no need now to handle him gently, I'm going right back to him. J Be K is back sprinting. In his first two career starts. he romped over maidens in track-record time at Saratoga, then easily won an allowance at Fair Grounds off a long layoff, a big effort considering he disputed what were by far the fastest fractions there that day.

Illinois Derby

Even though I don't think any of the three big Kentucky Derby preps Saturday are especially appealing from a betting standpoint, I feel almost obligated to address them. So here goes:

The Illinois Derby might be the best betting race of the three because the first three favorites - Denis of Cork, Z Humor, and Atoned - could be vulnerable. The undefeated Denis of Cork will be tough, but as impressive as his win in the Southwest Stakes most recently looks on paper, he benefited from a dream setup. Z Humor's two outings this year were uninspiring, and I don't like how Atoned blew clear stretch leads in his last two. I will go with Golden Spikes. Trainer Marty Wolfson says Golden Spikes was caught on a dead rail when fifth last time out in the Fountain of Youth, which might be true, and his second to Cool Coal Man two starts back was a sharp effort.

As for the Wood Memorial, I still fear there must be more to War Pass's debacle in the Tampa Bay Derby than being denied the lead or disliking the track. But he should get an easy lead Saturday, and should win if he's half the horse he was last year. In the Santa Anita Derby, I would be intrigued with Bob Black Jack if he weren't running on a track that plays against his speed. But he is, and this one looks like it comes down to the favorites, Colonel John and El Gato Malo.