05/01/2008 12:00AM

Betting that superior talent is enough


NEW YORK - Given that I failed to select a Kentucky Derby winner between Strike the Gold in 1991 and Street Sense in 2007, perhaps you should check back in 2023 when I am due to be right again, especially since I am picking a favorite with several strikes against him.

There are lots of other good reasons to oppose Big Brown in the 134th Kentucky Derby. He will be trying to win the race in only his fourth career start, which even the mighty Curlin couldn't do last year; he has run in only one stakes race, beating an unaccomplished field in the Florida Derby; his parentage doesn't make pedigree experts drool over his prospects at 10 furlongs; and he'll start from the far outside post in a field of 20.

Yet after adding those up, they don't outweigh the one good reason to stick with him: He has shown more raw talent in his three starts than his 19 opponents, and sometimes the best horse wins. There are plenty of nice horses in this race, but from what we've seen so far, if there's one for the ages, it's Big Brown.

He has done one thing after another that ordinarily good horses just don't do. He won his debut over a distance of ground on the grass by 11 lengths, truly accelerating the farther he went with a final five-sixteenths in a spectacular 28.40 seconds. He returned from a six-month layoff to win at a mile by nearly 13 lengths. Then in the Florida Derby, he had to run an opening half-mile in 45.83 to clear the field, and still increased his lead at every call despite drifting and gawking through the stretch. Another performance like that, and they're just not going to catch him.

Pyro might have been favored over Big Brown had he won the Blue Grass as the even-money favorite, but his dismal 10th-place finish over the quirky Polytrack at Keeneland dropped him to third choice on the morning line. If you're willing to draw a line through that race, he's an attractive alternative at 6-1. While his two impressive wins at the Fair Grounds were slow against the clock, he was allowed to gallop along behind slow paces and finished very strongly, blowing past subsequent strong performers such as Z Fortune and Visionaire. He ran final-time figures as a 2-year-old that are as good as most of this year's 3-year-olds have turned in.

There are all sorts of interesting possibilities among the others in the field. Two that I'll be trying are Tale of Ekati and Monba, not because they won indisputably slow editions of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass, but because there's a possibility that both can improve off those efforts in their third starts of the season.

Tale of Ekati's slow final time in the Wood was a direct function of his chasing a spectacularly fast pace. He was exhausted late while barely running down War Pass, but could produce a stronger effort with more patient handling. Monba was similarly uninspiring edging past entrymate Cowboy Cal in the Blue Grass, but was making a comeback start from an injury and seems like a horse with plenty of upside left. He was running over the field at the end of the CashCall Futurity last December.

No disrespect is intended toward the California contingent, but either price or distance prevents a stronger endorsement. Colonel John has done little wrong, with 4 victories and 2 seconds in 6 starts, but has yet to run a fast race and was all out to catch tiring sprinters despite a strong closers' bias in the Santa Anita Derby. He's perfectly eligible to like the distance if he thrives on dirt after an all-synthetic career, but just seems like an underlay as the 4-1 second choice. Gayego also has run well in all his starts, but just didn't look like a horse who was going to enjoy an additional furlong after grimly hanging on to win the Arkansas Derby.

Outside of the race itself, there's little for fans to cheer about this Derby. Three days before post time, it remained unclear whether account-wagering customers in many markets would even be able to bet the Derby card thanks to industry disputes that are increasingly alienating customers and squandering the sport's opportunity to grow. Nor will that growth be helped by the near certainty that whoever wins this year's Derby will be retired to stud by the end of this year, as the tail of bloodstock speculation continues to wag the dog of racing.

But at least for two minutes Saturday afternoon, we can forget about all that and salute one special colt - especially if Big Brown lives up to the incredible promise he has shown us so far.