04/27/2005 11:00PM

Buzzards Bay can key a Derby score

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Buzzards Bay wins the Santa Anita Derby with a relatively low 98 Beyer Speed Figure. The average Kentucky Derby winner runs a 108.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Buzzards Bay had not even cooled out following his low-rated upset April 9 in the Santa Anita Derby when trainer Jeff Mullins noted the differences between Buzzards Bay and his two previous Santa Anita Derby winners.

Castledale and Buddy Gil followed their upsets in the Santa Anita Derby by finishing 14th and sixth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby. The consensus this year is Buzzards Bay, coming off a tepid 98 Beyer Speed Figure, also will finish nowhere in the Derby. If his Santa Anita victory is as good at gets, Buzzards Bay may as well stay home.

But minutes after the Santa Anita Derby Mullins cautioned that Buzzards Bay "is still going forward."

"We have a fresh horse still on his way up," he said.

That was not the case in 2004 with Santa Anita Derby winner Castledale. "He was a turf horse," Mullins said.

And it was not the case in 2003 with Buddy Gil. When he won the Santa Anita Derby, Mullins said, "He was getting to the end of his peak."

But in the three weeks since Buzzards Bay won an unimpressive Santa Anita Derby, the colt has continued to blossom. Beyond crisp workouts - five furlongs in 59.80 seconds, followed by six furlongs in 1:12 on Monday - Buzzards Bay is galloping strong, carrying weight, and as Mullins said, "moving forward."

He has to.

Buzzards Bay would be the first horse since Sea Hero in 1993 to win the Kentucky Derby without previously earning a Beyer Figure of at least 100. Compared to the daunting speed figures earned this spring by Derby prospects in the East and Midwest, it would be easy to dismiss Buzzards Bay and his lowly 98.

Six horses will enter this Derby off triple-digit Beyer Figures - Bellamy Road (120), Afleet Alex (108), Greeley's Galaxy (106), Bandini (103), High Fly (102), and Noble Causeway (100). Two others earned 105's one start back - Consolidator and High Limit. Relatively speaking, Buzzards Bay is slow.

But horses change. Buzzards Bay is getting better. And it is reasonable to consider the possibility he will continue his upward pattern at Churchill Downs. The question is how much improvement is required? How much improvement is reasonable to expect? And finally, what price is fair to find out?

Buzzards Bay is currently listed at 30-1 by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker. The huge price is warranted, because in order to score an unlikely upset in Kentucky, Buzzards Bay must improve his 98 Beyer by at least 10 points. Since 1992, the median Beyer Figure earned by the Kentucky Derby winner is 108.

It would be really swell for longshot bettors if Buzzards Bay leaped forward by another 10 points, but the expectation is unreasonable. Buzzards Bay earned his career-high Beyer pressing a weak, slow pace in a mediocre Santa Anita Derby field. He cannot get the same easy trip in the Kentucky Derby. He must run better, under less desirable conditions, to merely reproduce his 98.

From a pure gambling perspective, that would just fine. Because if the improving colt Buzzards Bay runs in Kentucky the same way he has been training in California, he has a good chance to hit the board in the Derby. That is all a trifecta bettor asks.

Since 1994, the median $1 trifecta payoff in the Derby is a puffy $610. It can be much higher when two elements combine - the favorite running out and a longshot running in.

Bettors confident that Buzzards Bay can outrun his odds do not even need to worry about the favorite. If Bellamy Road reproduces his Wood Memorial victory, he probably will win the Derby. And if Buzzards Bay hits the board behind him, the trifecta still can pay well. Last year's $1 payoff was $493.80, even with favorites Smarty Jones and Lion Heart running one-two.

But if there is a chance that longshot Buzzards Bay improves enough to hit the board, there is also a chance that favorite Bellamy Road will regress and run out. The neat thing about a trifecta wager that keys a longshot such as Buzzards Bay in the second and third slots is that a bettor does not need to make a distinction between logical contenders.

In building a trifecta keyed around Buzzards Bay hitting the board, the logical Derby contenders would all be treated the same. For the sake of illustration, using the six horses entering the Derby off triple-digit Beyer Figures, a $1 trifecta play would cost $60.

The ticket would include Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex, Greeley's Galaxy, Bandini, High Fly, and Noble Causeway to win; with those six to finish second; with Buzzards Bay to finish third. It is 6 x 5 x 1, for a cost of $30.

A second ticket would use those six horses to finish first and third; with Buzzards Bay in the second slot. That is 6 x 1 x 5, for a cost of $30.

One of the appealing aspects to wagering on large fields is a bettor does not necessarily need to pick the winner to make a score. And if Buzzards Bay continues on his way up, an in-the-money finish would be plenty good enough.