04/29/2002 11:00PM

Best-bred for Derby distance? Saarland!

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LAS VEGAS - After all these months of perusing past performances and watching Derby preps, it comes down to basic handicapping, and of course, some help from the pedigree department. The bottom line is, who is bred to excel at 1 1/4 miles, a distance most of these runners will never try again?

Expect a strong pace, with War Emblem (Our Emblem) and Proud Citizen (Gone West) lighting up the early fractions, and with Came Home (Gone West) and the lightly raced Buddha (Unbridled's Song) and Medaglia d'Oro (El Prado) immediately behind them. War Emblem will find this pace scenario much different than his tour-de-force victory in the Illinois Derby, with Proud Citizen, Came Home, Buddha, and Medaglia d'Oro breathing down his neck. Behind this wall of speed, in a perfect spot, about six to eight lengths off the pace, will be the Derby favorite, Harlan's Holiday (Harlan) and Johannesburg (Hennessy).

Private Emblem (Our Emblem), Saarland (Unbridled), Perfect Drift (Dynaformer), and Essence of Dubai (Pulpit) will be bringing up the rear and will benefit from the speed duel up front.

While Proud Citizen, Came Home, Buddha, and Medaglia d'Oro are colts of considerable talent, the fast pace will take its toll, and it is unlikely they will have much left in the long stretch.

It is Saarland's time to shine.

While Officer, Came Home, and Johannesburg, dazzled as 2-year-olds, Saarland was like a gangly teenager. But Saarland was bred to be as brilliant at 1 1/4 miles at 3 as the others were sprinting at 2. Came Home and Johannesburg will be playing Saarland's game on Saturday, and it would only be fitting if the royally bred colt bred by racing's first family, the Phippses, were to wear the roses.

Ogden Phipps, the patriarch of racing's last dynasty, passed away two weeks ago, and he and his son, Ogden Mills 'Dinny" Phipps, own a small percentage of Saarland, with the majority belonging to his daughter, Cynthia. Cynthia bred and campaigned Saarland's dam, Versailles Treaty (Danzig), who won the Alabama Stakes at 1 1/4 miles, and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff twice, behind Dance Smartly in 1991 and Paseana in 1992. The only important race that has eluded the Phipps family (including Ogden Phipps's mother, Gladys Phipps) is the Kentucky Derby. As they did for other giants of the turf - Paul Mellon (who won with Sea Hero) and Mrs. Frances Genter (who won with Unbridled) - the racing gods may have a hand in this year's Derby.

And then there is Unbridled, who died unexpectedly at the young age of 14 last year. Winner of the 1990 Derby, Unbridled sired the 1996 Derby winner, Grindstone, in his very first crop. And while Unbridled has already achieved the highest level of success as a stallion, Saarland could add another laurel to his remarkable contribution to the sport.

Most of all, the Derby sets up for a closer like Saarland. A strong second to runaway winner Mayakovsky in the Gotham Stakes in his first start at 3, Saarland finished fourth behind Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, and Sunday Break in the Wood Memorial. Saarland's race was deceptively good. He had no chance on a speed-favoring oval that found the first three finishers 1-2-3 all the way around the track, and yet he closed against the bias and against a monster of a headwind. And it was only his second race of the year.

Dynaformer's offspring prefer turf, but they have prospered on dirt. Blumin Affair, a member of his first crop, finished third in the 1994 Kentucky Derby behind Go for Gin and Strodes Creek. Dynaformer has a legitimate contender this year in Perfect Drift, winner of the Spiral Stakes.

It would be folly to dismiss Harlan's Holiday. He is the most consistent colt in this year's Derby, and his pedigree suggests he will be running strongly at the finish. The late Harlan, a sprinter, proved he was capable of getting a classic runner when Menifee just missed catching Charismatic in the 1999 Derby.

The enigma of the race is Johannesburg, who accomplished more in his undefeated championship season at 2 than any other Thoroughbred in history. His four Group or Grade 1 wins in four countries were brilliant and effortless. Despite his critics, Johananesburg's Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory was especially astounding, considering that he had never raced on dirt, raced beyond six furlongs, or raced counterclockwise. Bred for speed, he does not look or perform like a sprinter, and his fifth dam is a full sister to Round Table. Master horseman Aidan O'Brien is not entering Johannesburg on a whim, and it would be no surprise to see this special colt do something miraculous.

Speed influence Gone West is represented by Came Home, Castle Gandolfo, and Proud Citizen. Came Home is the most accomplished of the three, but the future star will be Proud Citizen. His pedigree is so outstanding (his third dam is a full sister to Northern Dancer), that even if he finds 1 1/4 miles too far, he will be the horse breeders flock to at the end of his career.

If they can overcome traffic problems, I'll be looking for Saarland, Perfect Drift, and possibly Essence of Dubai to run down Harlan's Holiday, Johannesburg, and Proud Citizen to make this a memorable Derby.