04/21/2005 12:00AM

Bounce could land right in roses


NEW YORK - Of all the silly words sure to be spoken over the next fortnight leading up to the Kentucky Derby, one will come up again and again: bounce. As in, Will Bellamy Road "bounce" off his spectacular Wood Memorial on Derby Day?

It is already being debated in chat rooms and on bulletin boards, and while it's not even a particularly good example of the bounce phenomenon, it may be the most prominent case ever of the question it addresses: What can you expect next time out from a horse who has just turned in by far the fastest performance of his career?

The term comes from devotees of The Sheets and Thoro-Graph, the handicapping tools that chart a horse's adjusted speed figures on a graph-paper grid. When a horse makes a sudden, sharp move in his figures, the theory is that he may react to the effort required by such a fast race and run a significantly worse one next time out. The visual effect produced on the grid would be that of hitting a wall or floor and bouncing sharply in the opposite direction.

The fanatical and the skeptical have entirely different takes on the bounce theory.

Those who swear by it believe it illustrates a cause-and-effect relationship, that running faster than ever before produces a physical reaction in a horse that not only prevents him from running as well next time but also is itself the very reason he will run worse.

Those less devoted say that following a career-best race with a lesser effort is common sense, a natural and likely outcome that has nothing to do with a reaction to the first effort. If you shot the best round of golf in your life last Saturday, chances are you won't shoot as well today, because everything probably broke your way under ideal conditions and that probably won't all happen again.

Bounce adherents cite specific circumstances when a negative reaction is more likely. The quicker a horse returns for his next race, the likelier the bounce, because he has had less time to recover. They also say that the more dramatic the improvement, the more likely a horse is to regress to his prior form.

Bellamy Road splits the difference on those points. He will come into the Derby off a four-week layoff from the Wood, which was run a week earlier than usual this year. That should be sufficient recovery time, and there has been no indication or suggestion that his Wood effort knocked him out.

The scale of his improvement, however, is the kind that makes bouncers' eyes light up. On the Beyer Speed Figure scale, Bellamy Road zoomed from a 96 in his season debut at Gulfstream to a monstrous 120, a 24-point jump. This kind of astonishing progress is usually seen only in a horse's first two starts, when a horse with talent may improve dramatically off a troubled debut for which he might not have been entirely prepared.

Bellamy Road was making his fifth start in the Wood and his second as a 3-year-old, ideal circumstances for a forward move in his development. Had he won the Wood by six or seven lengths with a figure in the low 100's, some people would like him a lot more. He would be improving gradually, blooming in springtime, with perhaps another forward move under his girth. Somewhat strangely, because he ran so much better than that, now everyone's worried he'll go backward.

It's hard to imagine his going forward. Never mind his 120 being the fastest recorded Beyer Figure in a Derby prep since at least the early 1990's, it's also bigger than any of the Triple Crown races since Easy Goer's 122 in the 1989 Belmont. It's also difficult for any 3-year-old to run a new career top on the same day he stretches out to 10 furlongs for the first time.

So some of the bouncers already are predicting one of their recurring nightmares: the bounce-and-win, which is what happens when a favorite indeed fails to match his previous big number but wins anyway, because his edge was so large. Let's say Bellamy Road goes out and runs a 113 in the Derby, which some would consider a bounce off his Wood. Have you got a strong candidate to run a 114 and beat him? The next best Beyer out there is Afleet Alex's 108 in the Arkansas Derby. There's plenty of room for a bounce-and-win.

Even diehard bounce proponents often make one theoretical exception: The very best horses, the really special ones, are sometimes said to "run through their numbers," meaning they are so extraordinarily talented that they are immune to, or can overcome, the ricochet effect. If Bellamy Road can replicate his Wood Memorial, against more and better competition and over a 10th furlong, he will have bounced right into the pantheon of extraordinary racehorses.