03/10/2005 12:00AM

Big guns, questionable ammo


NEW ORLEANS - Sizing up Saturday's Louisiana Derby is like sizing up a poker table loaded with world champions and $600,000 in the pot - until you notice that the legends around the table are playing Go Fish with a pinochle deck and nobody seems to know what cards he's holding.

The lineup of trainers in this race is a murderers' row: From the rail out, it's Bob Baffert, Dallas Stewart, Bobby Frankel, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, Rick Violette, Patrick Biancone, Todd Pletcher, and Ken McPeek. This all-star team includes the winners of the last eight training Eclipse Awards, all three finalists for the 2004 trophy, and two trainers with five Kentucky Derbies between them. The nine combined to win over 1,300 races and $75 million in purses last year.

As for their horses, it's anyone's guess whether there's a potential killer among them in the league of the current Big Four of Afleet Alex, Declan's Moon, Rockport Harbor, and Sun King.

Let's start with the 5-2 morning-line favorite, High Limit, who would probably be 10-1 if he were still trained by Tony Dutrow, as he was when he walloped two bad fields at Delaware Park four months ago. He now is trained by Bobby Frankel, who won this race two years ago with Peace Rules off a similar freshening and change of trainer. High Limit has been training impressively at Palm Meadows, but Frankel and the horse's connections concede they have no idea how good he is or what to expect. He might be the speed of what looks like a paceless field.

The only other colt in the race deemed worthy of being one of the 23 individual betting interests in Pool 2 of Derby Futures wagering this weekend is a different kind of enigma. Scipion is a $1.9 million three-quarter brother to Vindication who twice has made visually impressive winning moves. He came from a hopeless-looking eighth to run down the entire field in his Saratoga debut, then last month passed nine horses down the stretch to win the Risen Star Stakes over this track.

Both races were exhilarating to the naked eye, yet unusually slow against the clock. Scipion's debut was the slower of two maiden races run that day at Saratoga, and his Risen Star was by far the slowest of three consecutive stakes at the same distance that day. His best Beyer to date is a lowly 89. Scipion, a Baby Huey type who still seems to be figuring out how this racing game works, might be something special, or he might just be slow.

Then there's Sort It Out, privately purchased after a narrow win in the Whirlaway on the Aqueduct inner track and turned over to Bob Baffert, who said last week that the colt would need some time off. Then Sort It Out worked a strong five furlongs at Santa Anita on Monday and Baffert decided to start him here. He'll take plenty of action off the switch to Baffert, though the stats on that move suggest caution: Over the last five years, Baffert is only 2 for 34 with horses making their first start for him off a trainer switch, and just 1 for 14 when that start comes in a stakes race. Of course, that one victory was with a horse named War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby.

Don't like the Frankel mystery, the flashy but slow Biancone project, or the change-of-heart Baffert New York-bred? How about Pletcher and Zito? Good luck. Pletcher has Vicarage, who might not be among the top 10 3-year-olds in his own stable, has never been two turns on the dirt, and comes off a distant third to stablemate Proud Accolade in the Hutcheson. Zito brings Indy Storm, who ranks no better than sixth among Zito's Derby prospects, and who has yet to exceed a Beyer of 75. Maybe he just hates Gulfstream, where he was beaten 27 3/4 lengths in his last two starts.

Asmussen and Stewart are back with Real Dandy and Storm Surge, but neither had an excuse while being outfinished by Scipion in the Risen Star. Who's left? You could do worse than to try Kansas City Boy, who finished in front of High Fly when second to Closing Argument in the Holy Bull, or even Wallstreet Scandal, who showed some ability on dirt last year and comes into this off two good grass efforts.

It's a good gambling race among as shifty a bunch as has ever been gathered for $600,000, so it's no surprise to see so many of the game's top trainers sitting at the Louisiana Derby table. Somebody has to win the front end of this pot, even if nobody is at all sure what he's got in his hand.