04/10/2002 11:00PM

Came Home deserves more credit

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ARCADIA, Calif. - This entire column was written during the final three furlongs of the Santa Anita Derby, won by Came Home.

Two lengths behind at the three-eighths pole in the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby, Came Home came home in roughly 38.60 seconds. That will not get it done three weeks from Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, and everyone knows it.

However, Came Home has not received adequate credit. After what he endured in the five weeks from his San Rafael Stakes win to the Santa Anita Derby, it is a wonder Came Home so much as hit the board. But then, Came Home is no ordinary colt.

Came Home's first scheduled workout following his March 2 San Rafael win was postponed 10 days, from March 12 to 22, because of a stall incident and a fever. Came Home went 20 days without a work. This is no way to prepare for a nine-furlong race, but trainer Paco Gonzalez had no choice. A five-furlong work March 22 was followed by a six-furlong work March 28, and a half-mile on April 2. Total preparation: three works jammed in 12 days.

The truth is, Came Home was dead short going into the Santa Anita Derby, and his situation was further complicated when he tore off a shoe while galloping two days before the race. A sore foot was soaked repeatedly, and by race day, Came Home's condition was as well as circumstances would allow.

Now, Came Home has four weeks to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Barring the unforeseen, he figures to run the race of his career at Churchill Downs.

It remains my opinion that Came Home will not stay 1 1/4 miles against the best 3-year-olds in the country. But when it comes to grit, desire, and determination, few horses in the Derby field will have overcome the obstacles Came Home already has.

Previous wins mean little

Victories before the race are not a requisite for Kentucky Derby success. The lesson is repeated annually. Came Home has won lots of races (6 for 7), but it does not matter. Charismatic was 3 for 14 going into the Kentucky Derby in 1999; Real Quiet was 2 for 12 in 1998; Sea Hero was 3 for 10 in 1993; Strike the Gold was 2 for 7 in 1991.

Contrast those non-win types with these victory machines: Express Tour (4 for 5) was off the board in 2001; Trippi (4 for 4) was off the board in 2000; Favorite Trick (9 for 10) finished eighth in 1998; Afternoon Deelites (5 for 6) finished eighth in 1995.

Typically, Kentucky Derby winners are not milers (such as Came Home) who win prep races. Most Derby winners are classic-bred 3-year-olds who, at some point, have demonstrated brilliance. Who will it be this year? Probably not Came Home, Johannesburg, or Booklet.

Field bet a relative value

Horseplayers who wagered on the field in Round 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager are feeling better all the time. This is nothing new: the Round 1 field wager historically offers substantial value. Although the field closed this year at a relatively short price of 2.80-1, bettors holding a field ticket are in a good spot.

That is because 15 of the 23 Pool 1 runners already have dropped out of Derby consideration, leaving only these eight: Johannesburg, Saarland, Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, Booklet, U S S Tinosa, Nokoma, and Request for Parole. Of those, there are knocks (speed, class, preparation) on all but Harlan's Holiday. One could do worse than own a field ticket in a race where only one legitimate horse can beat you.

The question for next year's Future Wager is this: How short will Round 1 bettors make the field. The odds have decreased every year: 5.10-1 in 1999; 3.50-1 in 2000; 3-1 in 2001; and 2.80-1 in 2002.

Taking advantage of disaster

Take Charge Lady should be cross-entered in both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. Beyond the fact she might be the country's best 3-year-old of either gender, trainer Ken McPeek must keep all options open, to the very last minute. Who knows what might happen?

Assume the ridiculous. What if scratches decimated the Derby field? Say, for example, an illness swept through the barns, forcing scratches of Harlan's Holiday, Booklet, Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, and Saarland. It is a preposterous idea that hopefully will not occur. But if it did, wouldn't Take Charge Lady be the Derby favorite? Only if she entered.

A maiden? Why not

The Derby field will be restricted to 20 horses, based on earnings in graded stakes races. Whether or not the maiden Ibn Al Haitham has a realistic chance, Godolphin figures to enter him in the Derby. Sheikh Mohammed has made it clear that he wants to win the Derby. That means leaving no stone unturned.

Ibn Al Haitham finished a creditable third in the UAE Derby, won by stablemate Essence of Dubai. Ibn Al Haitham has earned $250,000 in graded stakes, meaning he is assured a starting berth in the Derby. An argument might be made that it is not a sporting gesture to enter a maiden in the Kentucky Derby. On the other hand, if you are trying to win the race, isn't it better to have two starters instead of only one?

U S S Tinosa deserving starter

Despite a fifth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, U S S Tinosa deserves a chance in Kentucky. Apparently, he will get it. The Santa Anita race was partially the result of an incident on the first turn in which U S S Tinosa had the wind knocked out of him. The incident may or may not be a valid excuse, but U S S Tinosa ran too well in his previous starts to not take a shot.

The argument against U S S Tinosa is that if he cannot overcome trouble in an eight-horse field in the Santa Anita Derby, he has not shot to handle 19 foes in Kentucky. The argument is moot - the Derby winner usually gets a perfect trip, catches every break, and avoids traffic and trouble. If U S S Tinosa is fortunate enough to get such a trip in the Derby, it is a race he could win.