03/17/2004 1:00AM

Bounce with a vengeance

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BOSTON - He ran the best of times. He ran the worst of times. And now his status as a Kentucky Derby contender is very much in doubt.

That's the story of Read the Footnotes at Gulfstream in 2004. After his tremendous Beyer Speed Figure of 113 in winning the Fountain of Youth, he became the object of one of the greatest Bounce Watches in history. And bounce he did in last Saturday's Florida Derby - all the way down to an 86. That kind of figure wouldn't win most high-priced claiming races.

The trainer of Read the Footnotes, Rick Violette, worried publicly about the possibility of a bounce. He understood that the draining, all-out effort by his horse in the Fountain of Youth - especially after a layoff - could very well compromise his chances in the Florida Derby. So he eased up on his training, and gave Read the Footnotes a leisurely three weeks, followed by only one breezing workout in preparation for the Florida Derby. After the Florida Derby, Violette commented that the excessive exertion of the Fountain of Youth had probably caught up with Read the Footnotes around the eighth pole, and that with the perfect trip he enjoyed Saturday his horse should certainly have finished with more energy. But he backed up badly and ended up nose to nose with Farnum Alley, a 58-1 longshot who had been running Beyers in the upper 70's. It turned out to be the slowest Florida Derby in recent memory (a winning Beyer of 92), and Read the Footnotes couldn't even keep up in the stretch. A big bounce, indeed.

All of this very public discussion of Beyer figures and bounces raises an interesting issue. While we hear more and more talk about the Beyer Figures, I'm not sure we're seeing trainers and bettors actually using them to make decisions. For example, while Violette recognized the near inevitability of some kind of regression, he apparently didn't consider passing on the Florida Derby to give his horse more time to recover. Perhaps it's asking too much for a trainer to make such a dramatic decision, to pass up a million-dollar purse, and alter his planned preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Still, perhaps the wisest course would have been to wait another month or so before sending the horse back out to race again.

Here are a few other reflections on the disparity between speed-figure chatter and speed-figure action - all inspired by last weekend's races for 3-year-olds:

1) With all the public discussion about a likely bounce - and with the trainer himself leading the hand-wringing - you would expect a bit more caution from the betting public. But Read the Footnotes still went off as the even-money favorite.

2) Ever the optimist, trainer Nick Zito said he is bringing his Derby prospects along very slowly this year, hoping to time a peak performance from one or all of them on the first Saturday in May. But a quick look at the Beyer Figures for his runners should make us at least a bit skeptical as to the progress of Zito's master plan. Last Saturday, for example, Eurosilver finished second in the Swale Stakes at seven furlongs - a creditable effort. His trainer seemed to love it. But Eurosilver's Beyer Figure of 96 showed no improvement from his first race of 2004, nearly six weeks earlier. Zito seems to be counting on a double switch - to two turns and to Kentucky - to move Eurosilver up to a Derby-class effort. We shall see. In addition, Birdstone posted a disappointing 93 in an easy allowance win back on Feb. 14 and has yet to run back. And The Cliff's Edge creaked along in that slow Florida Derby, earning only a 90 Beyer. In fact, not one of Zito's three prospects has earned a Beyer in 2004 higher than the best they earned as 2-year-olds. This might be taking patient handling a bit too far.

3) John Kimmel, trainer of Friends Lake, winner of the Florida Derby, wanted to see if his horse would bring his "A game" to Gulfstream last Saturday. When Friends Lake won, Kimmel said he had seen enough; and he's leaning toward training his runner the rest of the way up to the Derby. Perhaps Kimmel should take a sober look at the Beyer Figure for Friends Lake. If a 92 represents Friends Lake's "A game," then Kimmel might want to consider something a bit less challenging than the Kentucky Derby.

4) Strictly in visual terms, Value Plus didn't look too bad in running second to Friends Lake. He chased and dueled the entire trip and held on pretty well. So his trainer, Todd Pletcher, concluded that Value Plus does indeed have the ability to go a distance. Unfortunately, his Beyer of only 91, and the overall pattern of his races, suggest that he is much faster at seven furlongs than he is around two turns. It's hard to see him challenging top competition at 1 1/4 miles.

But is there any top competition? The 2-year-old champion-by-default, Action This Day, did nothing in the San Felipe, earning a miserable Beyer of 84, although a cut on his leg might have hurt his chances. Tapit ran poorly in the Florida Derby, although some nasal congestion might have compromised his chances. Kilgowan won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate with a lowly figure of 84. Limehouse's 99 Beyer in the Tampa Bay Derby showed no improvement from his previous race - despite an absolutely perfect trip. Swingforthefences also failed to show any significant improvement. St Averil basically repeated his earlier race. Trainer Bob Baffert's runners showed some development, each earning a figure of 101 - Preachinatthebar in the San Felipe Stakes and Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby the week before. But neither of them looked like a killer.

One thing seems clear at this stage: With Second of June sidelined and Read the Footnotes in severe regression, a big horse has yet to emerge. The Derby picture is as muddled as it could possibly be.