05/02/2007 11:00PM

Between Breeders' Cup, Derby little has changed

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At the end of last year, I filled out my Eclipse Award ballot for the 2-year-old championship as follows: 1-Street Sense, 2-Nobiz Like Shobiz, 3-Circular Quay. More than four months later, the same three horses in the same order are my 1-2-3 selections for the Kentucky Derby.

This happened by coincidence rather than design, the product of a thoroughly undistinguished season of Derby preps in which nobody ran a particularly fast or inspiring race or took the giant step forward that

3-year-olds often do in early spring. Perhaps several will bloom suddenly Saturday and this will still turn out to be a vintage class rather than a mediocre one. In the absence of a compelling case that anyone else in particular is poised to do so, however, I will stick with the cream of the crop.

Street Sense's 10-length romp in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile six months ago remains the fastest and most decisive performance anyone in this field has mustered, and it came under very similar circumstances to those he will face Saturday: a race at Churchill Downs following a defeat in a slowly run prep over Keeneland's quirky Polytrack. His two races this spring have been perfectly managed preps by a trainer with a long history of getting his horses to peak for major events, and his final two workouts at Churchill Downs hint that he may be primed for another explosive effort.

Nobiz Like Shobiz has been something of a disappointment this year despite winning two of his three races and losing the other by less than a length. The colt began his career at such a high pitch that his failure so far to step up to an even higher level has discouraged many of his initial enthusiasts. Still, with only six career starts to his name, he deserves another chance to break through, and his tactical speed should keep him out of trouble in a 20-horse field filled with the usual contingent of hopeless second-raters who will be wilting through the lane.

Circular Quay has a couple of conditioning strikes against him, coming in off an eight-week layoff and having never raced beyond

1 1/16 miles, but his sustained stretch run in the Louisiana Derby suggested that the Derby distance may be to his advantage. The only time he has been worse than second was when he was pulled up sharply behind an accident, and he had a solid foundation of 2-year-old races that may compensate for his recent inactivity.

The lack of such foundation is why I will be betting against Curlin, the 7-2 morning-line favorite, who will be trying to become the first horse in 125 years to win the Derby without having raced at 2. Curlin has freakish natural ability and may well turn out to be the most talented horse in this group later in the year, but he will be a distinct underlay in this field. In addition to his lack of experience, he has yet to face a single horse of the quality of six or eight of today's rivals. If he's good enough to overcome all that, I will admiringly shower him with the confetti of my torn tickets, but he is a terrible bet to do so at a short price.

Others in this field deserve respect for their accomplishments. Scat Daddy is a solid colt with a fine record but may prove shaky at the distance. Tiago has developed quickly and has every right to grab a piece with a late run. Dominican may be a much bigger price than he should if people attribute his drastic improvement from 2 to 3 to Polytrack racing rather than to having progressed since being gelded over the winter. Any Given Saturday could be in the mix, but he may already have peaked and his odds could prove unattractive.

A victory by Street Sense would mark the first time a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has won the Derby and would be the first by a 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979. This seems an especially promising year to snap those streaks, given that almost everything that has happened this spring confirmed the quality of last year's Juvenile. Circular Quay, who was second in the Juvenile, dominated the Louisiana Derby. Great Hunter, who was third, turned in what may have been the spring's top California performance winning the Robert Lewis. Scat Daddy, who was fourth, subsequently won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.

You could do a lot worse than take 4-1 in this Derby on Street Sense, who walloped them all by 10 lengths that day.