03/31/2004 1:00AM

Breeding begins to tell the tale in nine-furlong Derby preps


LAS VEGAS - Four weeks away and counting.

The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters based on earnings in graded stakes, and time is running out for the 3-year-olds who need to acquire sufficient earnings to be included in what is expected to be a full and wide-open 20-horse field for this year's Derby. The horses in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby are having their final preps, and both stakes should be very revealing.

With Lion Heart running in next week's Blue Grass Stakes, the complexion of the Santa Anita Derby changes dramatically. With little speed signed on in the Santa Anita Derby, Lion Heart could have had things his own way as he tried to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time. Still, Lion Heart will have a big advantage in the Blue Grass on a Keeneland surface notoriously biased for speed.

Santa Anita Derby

On paper, the Santa Anita Derby is a wide-open race, and a case can be made for most of the seven entrants, including Wimbledon, Rock Hard Ten, Imperialism, St Averil, and Quintons Gold Rush. Lucky Pulpit (by Pulpit) and Castledale (Peintre Celebre) are better bred for the turf and have flashed talent on that surface, and are being given a last chance to show they can be competitive at the highest level on dirt. Lucky Pulpit does have tactical speed and should be a pace factor in this spot, but Castledale is at a big disadvantage if he goes. Castledale will love stretching out to distances over 1 1/8 miles, but in addition to the being on perhaps the wrong surface, he also will have little pace to run at.

St Averil has been consistent this winter in California, and like the vast majority of this year's 3-year-olds, how he performs at 1 1/8 miles will determine his Kentucky Derby status. St Averil is by the late Saint Ballado, who sired Captain Bodgit in his first crop. But aside from classic-placed Captain Bodgit, runners by Saint Ballado have been characterized by their brilliance (speed).

Imperialism is by sprinter Langfuhr, but Langfuhr has proven that he is capable of siring middle-distance runners, such as Imperial Gesture, Wando, and Mobil. And Imperialism acts like a runner who wants to go longer than 1 1/16 miles.

Quintons Gold Rush is one of three 3-year-olds - along with Wimbledon and Judiths Wild Rush - by the young stallion Wild Rush who will be seen in the Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby. Quintons Gold Rush is lightly raced, and his fourth-place performance in the San Rafael was good considering his inexperience and wide trip. This is a colt with tons of potential who should stay nine furlongs.

Rock Hard Ten has the most raw talent in this field, and there is no question that he will prosper at nine furlongs and beyond. He is by the late stout influence Kris S. (by Roberto out of a Princequillo mare), long known as a premier influence of stayers on dirt and turf. Kris S. is also the sire of last year's 2-year-old champion, Action This Day, and Tiger Hunt, who finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Never tested in his two races, Rock Hard Ten moves to the next level and his presence adds excitement to the Santa Anita Derby. A victory would move him to the top of his class.

After looking like he was going to be an eternal bridesmaid with tremendous potential, Wimbledon finally put it all together to win the Louisiana Derby, and another strong effort would certainly send him to Louisville as one of the favorites.

Illinois Derby

Because of a knee injury, Gradepoint is off the Triple Crown trail and might never race again, but his sire, A.P. Indy, is still represented by two Derby hopefuls, Florida Derby winner Friends Lake and Suave, who has the look of a real comer. In his most recent start, Suave won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park, and a victory in the Illinois Derby would give him enough earnings to qualify for the Derby. Suave has tactical speed, no doubt inherited from his multiple stakes-winning dam Urbane (by speed sire Citidancer), and is well-placed in a field of nondescript 3-year-olds.

Pollard's Vision (Carson City) will get plenty of attention, and while he might last for a share in the Illinois Derby, he is unlikely to play a significant role at 1 1/8 miles.

Song of the Sword is undefeated in three starts, and his pedigree is loaded with speed influences such as Unbridled's Song, Crusader Sword, and Valid Appeal. Nine furlongs looks like his absolute limit.

Judiths Wild Rush was Canada's champion 2-year-old last year and is training spectacularly for his 3-year-old debut. Although it is asking a lot of him to run 1 1/8 miles after a long layoff, this is a colt with a big future.