05/11/2005 11:00PM

Can't dismiss a Derby winner

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Since winning the Kentucky Derby last Saturday, Giacomo has been panned by critics more than the movie "Catwoman."

It is as if his critics only watched the timer in the Derby, not the race itself. They remark about how slowly he ran and how he earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, the lowest since the figures began being published in Daily Racing Form in 1992.

But horses are more than numbers. Time is one element in handicapping - an important element, but still just one part of this game.

Take time out of the equation in a post-race Derby analysis, and Giacomo's victory was a solid, if unspectacular, performance, no matter how difficult it was to envision. He beat 19 opponents, including such well-respected horses as Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex. Most had clean trips by Derby standards. They were simply beaten.

Giacomo may have run slowly in winning the Derby, covering 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.75, but there were 19 others who ran slower than him. They are more deserving of criticism than the winner. Future performance, not the clock, will tell where Giacomo ranks among the 131 winners of the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is a class test unlike any other, and for that reason alone Kentucky Derby winners command respect. The results of the Preakness bear that out. Since 1992, 12 Derby winners raced in the Preakness Stakes. Six won.

It was not just the fast, highly regarded winners of the Derby who repeated in the Preakness. Of the 12 most-recent Derby winners who competed in the Preakness, seven earned Beyers in the Derby that ranked below the 109 Derby average. Three of them - Charismatic (108), Real Quiet (107), and Smarty Jones (107) - proved successful again two weeks later in Baltimore.

Fast Derby winners - those who posted Beyers of 109 or more - fared even better, going 3 for 5. Derby winners Funny Cide (109), Silver Charm (115), and War Emblem (114) all repeated in the Preakness.

The prices were higher on the slow winners, as one would expect, and with Giacomo posting the slowest winning Beyer in the Derby since those figures were published in 1992, it is easy to picture him facing a full field of runners in the Preakness and starting around 8-1 odds.

He has far more doubters than believers. In checking online voting Thursday afternoon on the Daily Racing Form website, 83 percent of the respondents believed he would lose the Preakness.

Admittedly, his chances of repeating seemingly are not as favorable as other Derby winners. Besides the Derby, Giacomo has only a maiden win to his credit, but many Derby-Preakness winners had their share of doubters heading into the Preakness. Charismatic's Derby victory in 1999 was considered by some to have been a fluky performance from a former claimer, and most attributed War Emblem's Derby score in 2002 to him getting loose on the lead.

Like many, I didn't picture a Giacomo-Closing Argument finish in the Kentucky Derby, but I want to be careful not to underestimate him because the Derby outcome was different than what I anticipated. Certainly, a fast pace in this year's Derby set up the race for Giacomo, but the quick, contested pace was similarly beneficial for other closers in the race. Many had the same luxury and never got close.

In winning the Derby, Giacomo defeated eight horses who had won a half-million dollars or more in graded stakes going into the race. For that reason alone he must be viewed as having a shot to win another classic. If nothing else, he ought to offer more value in the Preakness than he should.

Cherokee Path worth a play

Saturday's feature at Churchill, the $100,000 Matt Winn, presents a step down from the quality seen Derby week, but it is a fine betting race.

Razor, a stakes winner trained by Steve Asmussen, is the most probable winner, but may not offer the necessary value in an evenly matched, speed-laden field. He is a play at odds of 3-1 or higher, but I'm expecting his odds to fall below that mark.

If he starts at less than 3-1, I'll try Cherokee Path as a price alternative. A son of the speedy Cherokee Run, he has never run worse than fourth in a sprint and seems primed for a strong effort in his second race following a layoff. Last November, when he made the second start of his form cycle, he won an allowance by over three lengths.

Cherokee Path looms an overlay at 8-1 odds or more in the Matt Win.