09/11/2002 12:00AM

Call the Derby a throwout, too


PHILADELPHIA - Is there anything worse than being right too soon? Anybody with an opinion can relate.

If you were too late, you didn't really have a good opinion anyway. But being correct too soon is especially aggravating.

Take the case of Came Home and me. Like the rest of civilization, I spent much of the spring poring over tapes and past performances so I could make a fool of myself with my Kentucky Derby selection.

After much deliberation, I settled on Came Home. If my opinion was shared by anybody other than the colt's connections, I never heard it. It seemed to me that nobody liked this horse. Which, of course, only encouraged me.

If you are not comfortable with a contrary opinion, you should never seriously play this game. The crowd is something to be avoided.

Whenever I told friends I liked Came Home, they looked at me sorrowfully as if to say, "Doesn't he know anything?"

Came Home was by Gone West. Which meant, I was told, that he couldn't possibly go 1 1/4 miles. I didn't really understand that, but was afraid to ask for fear of showing my ignorance about what apparently was obvious to the rest of the world.

Came Home was going slowly at the end of his races. His Santa Anita Derby was painfully slow, a Beyer Speed figure of 96. Did I not understand speed figures?

Here's what I thought I knew. Came Home, in my opinion, was unbeaten going into the Derby. Yes, I knew he had finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. I also knew that running up top in a speed duel into that fierce wind gave him no chance. That race, to me, was a throwout. The colt had run the Beyer Figures that would win, even though none of those figures was accomplished at a race longer than a mile.

And there was something visually about Came Home that just struck me in the same way it struck me with Fusaichi Pegasus and Point Given. It is what I call the "Da Hoss" phenomenon.

Whenever you see a top-class horse sit off the pace, pass several horses, take the lead in the stretch, get challenged by a closer, and refuse to lose, that is a horse capable of winning the very best races. That is the move I look for in my Derby horse.

So there was Came Home in the Derby, sitting fourth, ready to pounce. By the quarter pole, the colt was fading. He finished sixth, beaten by more than 10 lengths.

Naturally, everybody said he couldn't go 1 1/4 miles. I didn't think that was a very good argument. Came Home was done before the field went a mile. It wasn't the distance. It just wasn't his day.

Why? His rider, Chris McCarron, said recently the colt was dull before the race. The only answer to that is this is horse racing, where stuff happens.

Everybody knows what has happened since the Derby. Came Home won the Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes at 1 1/8 miles, and the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles. His Beyers were 107, 110, and 116 respectively.

It's quite nice to be right. It's also quite useless, if the timing is wrong.