04/10/2006 12:00AM

Brother, is there a Derby favorite

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NEW YORK - There are two critical Kentucky Derby preps still to be decided. The Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes are to be run Saturday, and they are scheduled to attract a few front-line aspirants in Lawyer Ron, Bluegrass Cat, and First Samurai. But even though it will be a few days before the results of these races are in, this much is crystal clear:

The horse to beat in the 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby on May 6 is Brother Derek.

In what is beginning to sound like a broken record - does anyone remember those grooved, round slices of black vinyl? - Brother Derek was really, really good yet again on Saturday, dominating the Santa Anita Derby. He opened up the early lead he wanted and absorbed a challenge from the improved San Felipe winner, A. P. Warrior, while running the third quarter of a mile faster (23.62 seconds) than he did the second quarter (23.99). Then he powered away through the stretch under nothing more than an energetic hand ride, completing the final three-eighths of the 1 1/8 miles in a solid 36.79. Brother Derek's final time of 1:48 was fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 108, the fourth straight time he has surpassed the triple-digit Beyer Figure barrier and the second he has clocked as high as 108. No other 3-year-old even remotely being considered for the Derby has met the 108 level more than once.

Okay, okay. I can already hear every wise guy in the country cackling that as the only front-runner, Brother Derek enjoyed a pace advantage in the Santa Anita Derby that he is extremely unlikely to get next time in Louisville. That is probably true. It also might not matter one bit.

Where is it written that Brother Derek must have the lead to run well, or cannot be as effective sitting off the lead? He sat just off the lead in the Hollywood Futurity, and he won, leaving Bob and John five lengths back in third. He sat in third early in last month's Santa Catalina, a race that he was not cranked up for, and recorded the biggest winning margin of his career before his 3 1/4-length decision Saturday.

More important, Brother Derek does not make mistakes. He has now won four straight and is 5 for 5 around two turns. You could argue that the undefeated Barbaro and Lawyer Ron, who has never lost on a conventional dirt track, don't make mistakes either. But Brother Derek has routinely beaten the best competition Southern California has to offer, and that includes last year's champion 2-year-old, Stevie Wonderboy. And Brother Derek is fast on a consistent basis. Whether you are crazy for Barbaro, gaga for Discreet Cat, or drooling to bet someone else, you must realize the one they all have to get around to win the first leg of the Triple Crown is Brother Derek.

That doesn't mean beating Brother Derek in the Derby can't happen. In recent years, horses like Point Given and Afleet Alex were head and shoulders the best in their divisions, but the first Saturday in May just wasn't their day. Those bettors who take the approach that 20 starters, a premium on racing luck, and a frenzied crowd of 150,000 or so make the Derby too much of an aberration to rely on the best horse might be intrigued with Sweetnorthernsaint, who was big winning Saturday's Illinois Derby at Hawthorne by just over nine lengths.

There was a lot to like about Sweetnorthernsaint on Saturday. He finished strongly, with a final three furlongs in 36.72 seconds, and exposed the northern California wonder Cause to Believe, beating him by more than 10 lengths. Racketeer, who was only 2 1/2 lengths behind A. P. Warrior in the San Felipe, finished 18 lengths behind Sweetnorthernsaint. My Golden Song, who was only a little more than three lengths behind Barbaro in the Holy Bull after a tough trip, and less than a length behind First Samurai in the Fountain of Youth, finished a neck behind the soundly beaten Racketeer. And this may surprise you: The second most consistently fast 3-year-old to Brother Derek in terms of Beyer Figures is Sweetnorthernsaint, who earned a 109 on Saturday.

Fast is not a term that really applies to Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, won by Bob and John by 1 1/2 lengths. Yes, the main track at Aqueduct on Saturday was sloppy and a bit on the slow side. But Beyer Figures account for the relative speed of the racing surface, and even taking that into consideration, Bob and John earned a Beyer of only 99.

Indeed, Bob and John's slow final three-eighths of a mile in the Wood of 40.53 was the principal reason why Jazil appeared to be finishing like a wild horse, and why Keyed Entry, who finished a tired third as the 4-5 favorite after controlling the pace, can't currently be considered a legitimate distance horse.