02/04/2008 12:00AM

Be sure to get a big price in Derby Future Wager

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While a few scattered stakes for 3-year-olds already have been run, the 2008 Triple Crown chase unofficially begins this weekend with the first of three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools (Feb. 7-10), sponsored by Churchill Downs.

As will be true for Pool 2 on March 6-9 and Pool 3 on April 3-6, Churchill will take wagers on 23 different Derby prospects, offering a 24th betting number to cover all other eligible 3-year-olds.

Moreover, Churchill also will offer separate, companion Future pools for the fillies pointing toward the Kentucky Oaks, which will be run Friday, May 2, a day before the Kentucky Derby.

Aside from their public relations value, Futures pools are only useful to players when they offer substantial odds on potential Derby and Oaks contenders. Frankly, this would more likely occur if Churchill were to open up its pools to 100 or more betting interests.

As it stands now, almost all of the 23 horses in Pool No. 1 have good 2-year-old form but have yet to be tested in graded stakes as 3-year-olds. While these horses may look good on paper or in early February, it is difficult to predict which of them actually will make it into the Derby and Oaks starting gates, much less win those races. A lot can happen during the next 13 weeks and no Future Wager refunds are tendered when horses miss the big race.

That fact alone commands that players should avoid playing any horse at odds much below 20-1. Better to focus on horses that have been sitting on the sidelines, getting ready for their first 2008 prep race. Among these could be the supremely talented Majestic Warrior, who is training forwardly after losing the Champagne Stakes and missing the BC Juvenile last fall due to injury. Frankly, odds that might approach 20-1 would be quite tempting on Majestic Warrior because I still regard this strong bodied, beautifully bred son of A. P. Indy to be the best Derby prospect I saw last year.

If you think you saw the "best Derby prospect" or an improving horse with Classic breeding, I still would suggest limiting your Future Wager play to horses near 20-1, or much higher odds. Lacking that, a good fall back option can be No. 24, the so-called "field." This to gain some insurance against a late-developing horse defeating the horse you wind up betting more seriously on Derby Day. The field also would cover the talented filly Country Star, a possible Derby starter who is sure to be the favorite in the Oaks Futures Pool.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the 23 horses in Pool 1. The most obvious common denominator is that all but a few seem close together in Derby potential.

* Anak Nakal: Won the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill in November over Blackberry Road, yet his breeding suggests he might need even longer distances than the Kentucky Derby for his best.

* Blackberry Road: Has several in-the-money finishes in graded stakes routes, which may limit his speculative potential to the superfecta on Derby Day.

* Bob Black Jack: Winner of the recent Sunshine Millions Dash has sprint breeding and seems a question mark for graded stakes routes.

* Colonel John: Stretch-runner bred for classic distances was second to highly regarded Into Mischief in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December. Would be a big surprise to see him at acceptable odds in this pool.

* Court Vision: Trained by Bill Mott, this son of Gulch won all three of his route races, including the one-mile Iroquois at Churchill and the nine-furlong Remsen at Aqueduct last fall. Another likely to be among the most popular choices in Pool 1.

* Cowboy Cal: Three-time turf winner trained by Todd Pletcher is following a path by design that resembles 2006 Derby winner Barbaro. His dirt test is coming soon, so he could be an interesting price stab here.

* Crown of Thorns: Won the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 2 when stretched out in distance for the first time and is one more big race away from solidifying his trip to Louisville.

* Denis of Cork: Won his lone start last season at Churchill and came back with a promising allowance win around two turns in the slop at Fair Grounds on Jan. 19. Has classic distance breeding and might be worth a small flyer at huge odds.

* El Gato Malo: Undefeated in three starts on three different synthetic tracks in California. Rated kindly behind the speed types in the one-mile Gold Rush at Golden Gate Fields and the Grade 3 San Rafael at Santa Anita. Will he continue to improve at longer distances?

* Etched: Strong winner of both career starts last year, including the one-mile, Grade 3 Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct on Oct. 20. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is outstanding with distance horses. Consider for Future Wager play.

* Georgie Boy: Won the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity in a mad scramble Sept. 8 and was scratched from the Sunshine Millions Dash, so we have not yet seen if he is a more mature 3-year-old. Long odds available for those who believe.

* Giant Moon: Undefeated New York-bred won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct on Jan 5, but will have to show more in graded stakes before he can be seriously considered.

* Into Mischief: Improved to win the CashCall at 1 1/16 miles around two turns at Hollywood on Dec. 22 for Hall of Famer Dick Mandella, who also trains Crown of Thorns. Like many of the highest rated California based 3-year- olds, he has not yet run on a dirt track.

* Majestic Warrior: As hinted above, might be the best Derby prospect Hall of Fame trainer Mott has ever had.

* Monba: Pletcher trainee was only fourth in the CashCall Futurity, but did finish well and is bred to improve as he matures.

* Pyro: Steve Asmussen trainee demonstrated enough when second to War Pass in the Champagne and BC Juvenile last fall to warrant attention. Scheduled to run in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 9 and a good performance probably will make him the betting favorite in Pool 1.

* Signature Move: Two-time allowance winner at 1 1/16 miles on synthetic tracks in Southern California is by undefeated 2002 juvenile champ Vindication. May offer some value at very long odds in this pool.

* Smooth Air: Gamely won the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Hutcheson at Gulfstream on Jan 5. Ambiguous distance breeding, but trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. has given him smart works for his next start in a route. Looms a possible roll of the dice for this pool.

* Tale of Ekati: Barclay Tagg trainee failed to handle the sloppy track at Monmouth when fourth to War Pass in the BC Juvenile and must prove that he will like two turns as much as he enjoyed one-turn sprints.

* War Pass: Undefeated Eclipse Award champion juvenile in 2007 is trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito. Has strong front-running speed and might outrun his pedigree's preference for middle distances.

* Yankee Bravo: British import won a stakes on grass at Santa Anita in December and then overpowered a modest field to win the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields on the synthetic Tapeta track on Jan. 27. Has some upside.

* Z Fortune: Undefeated winner of Lecomte at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 12, and a stablemate to Pyro, will get his chance to prove his class soon.

* Z Humor: Fifth-place finisher in the BC Juvenile for Mott and third-place finisher to War Pass in the Champagne, he returned in December to post a dead-heat victory (with Turf War) in the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs. Bred to improve as he matures and is likely to be a huge price in this pool.