04/20/2006 12:00AM

An audition, maybe a preview

Showing Up, with trainer Barclay Tagg, will make his stakes debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When the Grade 2, $325,000 is run Saturday at Keeneland as the last major prep race before the 132nd Kentucky Derby, it might well unfold like a mini-version of the Derby itself.

Indeed, with an ample dose of early speed in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington - Like Now, Fast Parade, and the unbeaten Showing Up are part of the 10-horse field - the race is a fitting preview to what the May 6 Derby holds in store.

"Our horse is fast, and Like Now has a lot of speed, too," said Barclay Tagg, trainer of Showing Up. "I don't know if we can let Like Now get out there too far, but I don't want to get into some kind of duel and have some longshot come and beat both of us."

Strategy in the Lexington, then, will be much like what almost everyone is trying to figure out for the Derby: With all that speed, how does anyone avoid being chewed up on a killer pace and save something for the finish?

"I really don't know how you do it," said Dale Romans, who trains Sharp Humor, who makes his next start in the Kentucky Derby.

Sharp Humor, the Swale winner and Florida Derby runner-up, worked a swift one mile Thursday at Churchill Downs. Sharp Humor, one of a slew of front-running Derby hopefuls, was timed in 1:38 over fast going with regular rider Mark Guidry aboard.

"A lot of times when everybody thinks there's too much speed in a race, it doesn't work out that way," said Romans. "The speed keeps going, and the closers never get there.

Romans said he's not going to change his horse's running style in the Derby.

"I'm just going to let him roll," he said. "I'm not even going to try to teach him to do something he's never done, not going into the biggest race of his life. We're just going to let him do his thing and see what happens."

That let-the-chips-fall philosophy is what the main players in the Lexington are taking into Saturday. Tagg and Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Like Now, say they believe that if their horses can successfully emerge from what promises to be a wicked early tussle, then they deserve to be part of the Derby scramble, too. Their Saturday task is made even trickier with the presence of Fast Parade, a California speedball who has won 4 of 5 starts, all at 6 1/2 furlongs or shorter.

Showing Up, who will break from post 2 with new rider Cornelio Velasquez aboard, figures as the favorite in the Lexington, in which he makes his stakes debut. Tagg said Showing Up "settled in pretty good" after arriving at Keeneland early Wednesday following a long van ride from New York.

"I don't know if we even belong with these horses, but you sure hope you do," Tagg said before schooling Showing Up in the Keeneland paddock before the fifth race Thursday.

Showing Up was highly impressive in winning his two previous starts, both at Gulfstream. Tagg had wanted to run Showing Up next in the April 8 Wood Memorial, but was sidetracked when Showing Up came up with a foot bruise, which has since healed. Tagg then settled on the Lexington as his only viable alternative in making the Derby.

Other trainers with Lexington horses also believe that if they win, their Derby tickets will be punched. With a purse of $325,000-added, the Lexington will award about $200,000 to the winner, more than enough to assure a Derby berth. If more than 20 horses are entered in the Derby, which seems highly likely this year, starting spots go to the horses with the top 20 lifetime graded earnings.

"My horse seems to fit well here," said George Weaver, trainer of Lexington starter Greeley's Legacy, who finished seventh in the Wood last out. "I don't think he tried in the Wood, and I don't think he liked that track. If we win, we want to go to the Derby."

"We've had high hopes for our horse all year," said Nick Zito, trainer of Hemingway's Key. "We'll see how he does Saturday. If he's good enough, he's good enough. I would like to get there with him."

For Zito, who had a record-tying five Derby starters last year, Hemingway's Key represents his last attempt to make the 2006 Derby. Thursday, Zito declared Superfly, owned by Robert LaPenta, out of the Derby.

"Mr. LaPenta and I believe it's time to go in a different direction with him," said Zito.

The Lexington, the ninth of 10 Saturday races at Keeneland, will be televised on a delayed basis on ESPN2. The one-hour broadcast begins at 6 p.m. Eastern and will also include a replay of the $150,000 Tesio Stakes from Pimlico.

The Tesio, an ungraded race that has evolved into a local prep for the Preakness, drew a field of 11, none of whom will advance to the Derby. Probable favorites in the 1 1/8-mile race include Roamin Murphy, Victory Lake, Ah Day, and Scanlon's Song.

* In other Derby news, Sacred Light breezed five furlongs Thursday in 1:01.60 at Hollywood Park. Trainer David Hofmans said he will work Sacred Light again Wednesday before plotting his next move. With $97,300 in graded earnings, Sacred Light is on the outside looking in. "I'm just waiting, like a few other guys are doing," said Hofmans.

Sweetnorthernsaint, the Illinois Derby winner trained by Mike Trombetta, was scheduled to work Saturday morning at Laurel Park, but the work could be moved up a day due to inclement weather expected on the weekend.

The field
Lexington Stakes / Keeneland
Purse: $325,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 2

1Gone ProspectingJ. Velazquez11720-1
2 Showing UpC. Velasquez1173-1
3More Than RegalS. Bridgmohan11710-1
4Hemingway's KeyR. Bejarano1176-1
5Bear CharacterR. Douglas11715-1
6Special InterestM. Guidry11720-1
7Chin HighR. Albarado12315-1
8Like NowF. Jara1237-2
9Fast ParadeM. Ruis1175-1
10Greeley's LegacyJ. Castellano1175-1

* Odds by Kristin Sadler
* Television: Saturday, 6 p.m. (tape delay), ESPN2