04/10/2005 11:00PM

Bellamy Road raises Derby dilemma

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NEW YORK - It is hard to think of any horse in the modern history of racing who was more impressive in his last race before the Kentucky Derby than Bellamy Road was winning Saturday's At Aqueduct.

And for this reason, one of the most critical qualifications in a successful candidate for the Derby, a minimum of three prep races at 3 before the Derby, will now have to be seriously reconsidered. That is because Bellamy Road will have only two starts going into the Derby.

This qualification has become a near requirement. After Jet Pilot won the 1947 Kentucky Derby off two previous starts at 3, only Sunny's Halo in 1983 has been able to win the Derby doing the same.

In recent years, many have attempted to win the Derby off a light prep schedule. In 2004, Lion Heart, Read the Footnotes, Birdstone, Tapit, Castledale, and Friends Lake were unsuccessful. In 2003, it was Peace Rules, Outta Here (only one Derby prep), and Indian Express. And in 2002, it was Proud Citizen, Johannesburg (one prep), Essence of Dubai, Saarland, and Castle Gandolfo (also one prep).

But judging from the way he won Saturday, Bellamy Road is ready to give this qualification the stiffest test it has received since Point Given attempted to win the 2001 Derby off two prep races. Point Given was as dominant a 3-year-old as you could ask for - a 9-5 Derby favorite against 16 other betting interests. But Bellamy Road figures to provide the acid test. As good as Point Given was, he did not win his final start before the Derby the way Bellamy Road won the Wood. Not even close.

You can take your pick of reasons why Bellamy Road was so impressive. It could be because he won by 17 1/2 lengths with jockey Javier Castellano celebrating in the irons the last sixteenth of a mile. It could be that combined with his 15 3/4-length score at Gulfstream in his first start this year, no one has been able to get in the same time zone as Bellamy Road this year. Or, it could be that despite being hardly asked to run, Bellamy Road equaled the 32-year-old, 1 1/8-mile main track record, held by champion Riva Ridge.

Yes, Aqueduct's main track was extremely fast Saturday. Ridiculously so. It never ceases to amaze how on big race days, the management at many tracks all over the country turn their surfaces into the Indianapolis Speedway. Who are they fooling?

In any case, there have been a lot of very fast tracks at Aqueduct in the last 32 years, but no horse ran 1 1/8 miles faster than Bellamy Road did. Moreover, one of the great things about Beyer Speed Figures is that they take into account the relative speed of the racing surface, and even accounting for the extreme quickness of Saturday's track, Bellamy Road earned a sensational Beyer of 120.

Unless there is a freakish performance this Saturday in either the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby, Bellamy Road's Wood guarantees he will be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. It does not, however, guarantee victory. The two-prep thing can get him like it did Point Given, or he could regress, as his 120 Beyer was a 24-point improvement over his previous best. But that is a discussion for the coming weeks. For now, Bellamy Road deserves all the plaudits he gets.

Catomine's handlers fool the public

Unfortunately, Saturday's Santa Anita Derby was the opposite of tremendous, primarily because of the postrace revelation that Sweet Catomine, who finished a flat fifth as the even-money favorite, spent 48 hours in a veterinary clinic earlier in the week after bleeding in her workout the Sunday before the race, had foot issues on Wednesday, and was close to not even running.

None of this was made public by Sweet Catomine's connections, and the excuse that no one specifically asked is weak. In fact, after Sweet Catomine's work on Sunday, the Santa Anita stable notes had this quote from trainer Julio Canani: "She's as good as she can come [up to a race]." On Thursday, after the stay at the clinic and the foot issues, there was again no mention of trouble. Instead, Canani offered the following, again in the Santa Anita stable notes: ". . . she looks good, she feels good, she's happy."

Owners and trainers must learn that this game is not their private playground. There was more than $4.5 million wagered on the Santa Anita Derby in all betting pools, and with Sweet Catomine such a heavy favorite, most of that money involved her. It is disgraceful that Sweet Catomine's connections were not more forthcoming. And if they feel they don't owe the betting public anything, they need to be reminded that were it not for the betting public, they wouldn't be racing for today's fat purses, and their bloodstock would be worth only a fraction of what it is worth today because there would be no incentive to breed horses. Horse racing would be polo. Ever try cashing a bet at a polo match?