05/05/2005 12:00AM

Bellamy Road is simply the best

Bellamy Road, muscling up at Churchill Downs this week under Carlos Correa, has a Beyer Speed Figure edge that seems insurmountable come Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

WASHINGTON - Most racing fans spend many hours studying the horses in the Kentucky Derby, but they can make the mistake of analyzing the race too much. Over the years I have often been guilty of this error, failing to pick standout winners such as Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew. It is easy to become obsessed by nuances and lose sight of the big question: Is there a horse in the field with such superior talent that the nuances are irrelevant?

That may indeed be the case in the 131st Derby. Bellamy Road could very well be in a class by himself.

Owner George Steinbrenner's colt has raced twice this year, winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park by nearly 16 lengths and the Wood Memorial Stakes by 17 1/2. In the latter he equaled a 32-year-old track record at Aqueduct and earned a stratospheric Beyer Speed Figure of 120, the best ever recorded in a prep race for the Derby.

This one performance suggested that Bellamy Road might be another Secretariat, Affirmed, or Seattle Slew. Yet skeptics doubt that he will run a similarly powerful race on Saturday, and they raise several legitimate questions about him:

* Does he have enough preparation? Bellamy Road has raced five times in his career, and only twice as a 3-year-old. History says this is not sufficient. Only one horse since 1947 has won the Derby with just two preps. However, most of his main rivals have had light regimens as well, so Bellamy Road is not at a significant disadvantage against them.

* Will he bounce? Many handicappers believe that a horse who delivers an extraordinary effort - as Bellamy Road did in the Wood - will regress sharply in his next race. But it is common for 3-year-olds to improve suddenly in spring and continue to improve. In recent years, both War Emblem (2002) and Charismatic (1999) came to life with an unexpected, fast victory in April. Instead of bouncing, both went on to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown series.

* Can Bellamy Road run effectively if he doesn't have the early lead? Handicappers regularly encounter horses that run big races when they go to the front unchallenged but falter when they are subjected to tough early pressure. It is almost axiomatic to bet against such horses when they face fields where they can't make the lead.

Bellamy Road's three wins in distance races were front-running efforts; he suffered his only defeat as a 2-year-old after a head-and-head battle. And he won't make the lead in the Derby against speedsters such as Spanish Chestnut and Going Wild.

In an ordinary year, I would be inclined to take a stand against a front-running favorite facing the prospect of intense pressure in the first half mile. But this is not an ordinary, wide-open Derby. Even if other horses do get an ideal setup from a fast pace, most of them aren't talented enough to take advantage of their good fortune.

Speed figures have pointed out the winners of most recent Derbies, and they have been a very potent tool is distinguishing the contenders from the non-contenders. A useful rule of thumb is that a horse should have earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 or higher at least once before the Derby. In the 13 Derbies since the ratings have been published in Daily Racing Form, only 73 horses have met this standard and 11 have won. Horses who failed to run a 105 before the first Saturday in May had a combined Derby record of 2 for 151.

In most years, the Derby contenders' speed figures are closely bunched, but in Saturday's field there are huge gaps separating them. Besides Bellamy Road, with his towering 120, only three horses reached the 105 benchmark: Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby (108), Greeley's Galaxy in the Illinois Derby (106), and High Limit in the Louisiana Derby (105). Other entrants who are considered strong contenders have never run fast - such as Bandini, the runaway winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, and High Fly, the Florida Derby victor. Indeed, more than half the field has never earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, and it is hard to imagine them improving enough to win.

If Bellamy Road were foiled by a too-fast battle for the early lead, the Derby winner would almost certainly be a horse who could come from off the pace and finish strong. Afleet Alex is the most likely candidate. He drew away from his rivals in the stretch to win the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths. Moreover, he has a classic profile for a Derby horse, including a good 2-year-old campaign and a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Bellamy Road's stablemate Sun King also has an outside chance to spring an upset. He gave a poor showing in the recent Blue Grass, but there is a long history of Blue Grass flops doing well in the Derby. Before that setback Sun King earned a speed figure of 104 and had previously laid a solid foundation at 2.

But neither Afleet Alex, Sun King, nor anybody else is going to win the Derby if Bellamy Road approximates his best form. I believe he will, and I believe he has such an advantage in raw talent that he can overcome adversity and still win. I may have overlooked Secretariat, but I'm not going to overlook a potential superstar this time.

(c) 2005, The Washington Post