05/04/2006 12:00AM

Closers don't overly impress


WASHINGTON - Who is the best horse in this year's Kentucky Derby?

Handicappers across America are pondering that question, but it is probably irrelevant. The important question involving the Derby is this: Which horse will be able to finish strongly in the stretch run of the 1 1/4-mile race?

The history of America's most famous race is filled with examples suggesting what is likely to happen this afternoon. Six times in the last 25 years, the first quarter of the Derby has been run in 22.50 seconds or faster. In every one of those years, all of the horses running one-two-three after a quarter of a mile finished out of the money. In every one of those years, the winner came from 13th place or farther behind. And in some of those years, the winner was a fluke, such as the 50-1 Giacomo in 2005.

Everybody knows that the field for the 132nd Derby is loaded with speed horses. In many such circumstances, jockeys will adjust their strategy and restrain their horses so that an expected fast pace doesn't materialize. But in this year's 20-horse field, so many horses have so much speed that there is little the jockeys can do to avoid a destructive pace.

That should make handicapping the Derby easy, right? Throw out the front-runners, bet the closers. But this is in fact one of the most confusing Derbies I have ever seen. I believe devoutly in speed figures, which have proved very significant in this event over the years. But the 3-year-olds who have earned outstanding Beyer Speed Figures in 2006 are all speed types - Sinister Minister (116), Sweetnorthernsaint (109), and Brother Derek (108) - and they all look vulnerable as a result. Yet the few horses who are confirmed stretch-runners don't appear to have much ability.

Sinister Minister's front-running victory in the Blue Grass Stakes was one of the fastest Derby prep races ever. In a different year, he might have been able to dominate the Derby with his raw speed. But in this year's field there are at least two other speedsters capable of running a quarter mile in 22 seconds flat or faster: Sharp Humor and Keyed Entry. Sinister Minister isn't going to run away from them.

Sweetnorthernsaint, who will be stalking them, looked impressive running away with the Illinois Derby, but he did it while pressing a slow pace against a weak field. He has never shown an ability to come from off the pace. Brother Derek, the morning-line favorite, delivered his two best performances when he was the solitary speed horse in fields of four and five.

But if all of the leaders weaken, who will catch them? Lawyer Ron, who might be the

second choice in the betting, has earned speed figures of 98, 94, and 95 winning three stakes in Arkansas - well below the minimal standards for winning the Derby. Other potential closers aren't much better.

Perhaps the most credible of the stretch-runners is A. P. Warrior. He weakened in his last race, the Santa Anita Derby, but that performance was deceptive; he was forced to alter hisstyle and chase the lone front-runner, Brother Derek. But in his previous start, the San Felipe Stakes, A. P. Warrior stamped himself as a Derby contender. Reserved off the pace, he accelerated on the turn, outkicking favored Bob and John (the future winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes). Point Determined challenged him in the stretch, but A. P. Warrior repulsed the bid and was pulling away at the finish. It is hard to make a case that A. P. Warrior is the best horse in the Derby field - his figure in the San Felipe was a modest 101 - but all of the conditions could be right for him.

Who is the best horse in the field? By the end of the year, I would bet, that question will have a clear-cut answer: Barbaro. The colt won his first three starts on the grass, finishing so powerfully that he looked like a potential winner of the Derby - the Epsom Derby. But the owners were thinking of the one in Kentucky, and so trainer Michael Matz put Barbaro on the dirt at Gulfstream Park this winter. The colt won both his starts by pressing the leader and wearing him down in the stretch, but the performances weren't dazzling, and most people (include Matz) still believe Barbaro is better on turf.

In those races, however, the peculiarities of the 1 1/8-mile course at Gulfstream forced jockey Edgar Prado to hustle early in order to secure a good tactical position. Barbaro never displayed the strong late kick he had possessed on the turf. But if he races in mid-pack behind a hot pace in the Derby, he might unleash an explosive finish. After Barbaro worked a half-mile at Churchill Downs, the clocker for Handicapper's Report, a respected online service that publishes commentaries on workouts, wrote, "Awesome! . . . Have never seen a horse finish as fast as he did with such ease."

The Derby is such a contentious race that trying to isolate a single horse for a win bet is probably not a realistic aim. In recent years, the Derby superfecta has been an enticing bet, often yielding astronomical payoffs to bettors who can pick the first four finishers. My strategy is to play with the premise that either A. P. Warrior or Barbaro will win. I'll completely throw out all of the speed horses except for Sweetnorthernsaint. Brother Derek's number will not appear on my tickets. I will hope to guess right on possible stretch-running longshots who may plod along to finish third or fourth when the speed collapses.

But because this is the Derby, it is obligatory to try to pick a winner, for future bragging rights. My selections:

1. A. P. Warrior

2. Barbaro

3. Point Determined

4. Sweetnorthernsaint

(c) 2006 The Washington Post