04/07/2005 12:00AM

Complicated problem with a simple solution

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The lofty 44 percent win rate of favorites in the Santa Anita Derby suggests a straight wager Saturday on the filly Sweet Catomine. With respect to historical precedent, the Derby this year is more complicated than usual.

Beyond the gender issue - Sweet Catomine has never faced colts - there is a void of pace and a general lack of quality. The story is familiar.

It is a springtime ritual to criticize the Derby crop. The criticism usually is justified. Perhaps one reason why horses frequently disappear after going through the Triple Crown grind is that they were not that good to begin with.

This winter at Santa Anita, the only colt who has distinguished himself is Consolidator, whose blowout win three weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes earned a 105 Beyer Figure that would crush the Santa Anita Derby field.

Consolidator runs next weekend, however, so the attention turns to Sweet Catomine, whose five straight wins include Grade 1's against the best in her division.

But is the filly good enough to win? Since 1993, the median Beyer Figure for a Santa Anita Derby winner is 105.5. Based on that average, a legitimate contender would have run within 5 points and recently earned a 100. Sweet Catomine is the only entrant who has reached triple digits.

The lack of Santa Anita Derby quality, based on speed figures, is in line with the dubious quality of most Derby preps this year, including High Limit's win in the Louisiana Derby, in which he earned a 105 Beyer. When runner-up Vicarage returned to finish sixth, beaten 17 lengths, in the Florida Derby, it cast a cloud - the Louisiana Derby probably was not as good as the figure.

A similar concern shadows Consolidator's March 19 romp. He ran fast early, middle, and late, but the wet-fast track favored horses with speed. It flattered Consolidator.

The validity of his performance may be answered by Giacomo or Don't Get Mad on Saturday. If the San Felipe was legitimate, rather than tainted by bias, then Don't Get Mad probably ran his race when he closed for third. If he runs similarly Saturday and again closes ground for a modest placing, the San Felipe was probably what it appeared to be - a fast race won by a bona fide freak.

But if Don't Get Mad improves considerably Saturday, on a fair track, it could mean he bucked an authentic speed bias last time. Though it sounds contradictory, a big effort by Don't Get Mad might cloud the form of the horse who beat him.

A similar issue surrounds Giacomo. He chased the pace in the San Felipe, ran around the track, and finished second. But did he run hard, or merely ride the bias? His effort Saturday could be difficult to interpret, because he drew the rail and is expected to be rated behind a dawdling pace. Going in, his trip has all the makings of a disaster.

The performances of Don't Get Mad and Giacomo can either validate or nullify the March 19 win of Consolidator. Already this week, a front-running winner from the March 19 card returned to run poorly. Family Guy won a maiden race by seven lengths that day, but Thursday in race 5, he broke in the air and never got going at odds-on.

Other starters face similar questions. Buzzards Bay and Wannawinemall finished third and second in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on March 12 at Bay Meadows. The winner was pace-presser Uncle Denny, but he was injured and is currently out. It remains unknown if the race was legitimate.

Wannawinemall and Buzzards Bay both bled. "They say horses at Bay Meadows are more susceptible to bleeding," said Jeff Mullins, who trains Buzzards Bay.

Does it matter? Their best figures, 87 for Buzzards Bay and 86 for Wannawinemall, are miles below Grade 1 par.

Wilko, whose career-best Beyer is 98, is fairly close on figures, and a sharp six-furlong workout last Friday hints at improvement. Wilko broke slowly in the San Felipe, but he possesses speed, and must use it from the outside post. Wilko might even be the pace of the race. If he utilizes his speed, the outside post will not be a hindrance.

Go Coyote Joe is an improving longshot whose best Beyer is 88. In the Santa Catalina, he finished only 4 1/2 lengths behind Going Wild, who is among the favorites Saturday in the Wood at Aqueduct. Go Coyote Joe will be finishing at a giant price.

Turf Paradise Derby winner General John B shipped to Gulfstream Park for the Fountain of Youth, but got sick. He ran, and was beaten 26 lengths. But he has worked well since, and in the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Roger Stein said, "I think he'll be one-two-three-four. Guys are running maidens and stuff in there. If you can't beat them, you don't belong."

The maiden A.P. Arrow showed ability finishing second in his sprint debut; he is bred to improve with distance and is trained by Wayne Lukas. But a Grade 1 route, second time out? "I'd be careful," Lukas said, adding that A.P. Arrow "is the most improved horse in the barn this spring."

A.P. Arrow will be overbet on name recognition - Lukas at a price. Common-sense handicapping suggests passing on maidens in Derby preps.

Early this week, someone closely associated to Sweet Catomine said, "I don't think she can lose - not because of her, but because the rest of the field [is bad]."

Facts are facts. Sweet Catomine is the only starter who has exceeded the triple-digit Beyer standard. Her class is irrefutable.

Last year, speed figures ruled the Derby trail. By early April, Smarty Jones and Lion Heart had already earned triple-digit Beyers twice.

Are there any fast horses in this year's Derby crop? And if speed is not the yardstick, what is? Perhaps this year it is the same principal factor used to handicap a turf race. Maybe this year, class is everything.

If so, it is possible that the exacta in the Santa Anita Derby is a cinch staring everyone in the face.

Imagine it. Wilko turns for home, leading the field. Sweet Catomine rallies wide, out where she likes to be.

And as the two Breeders' Cup winners pull away from the field, it all becomes clear. Perhaps the Santa Anita Derby is as simple as merely identifying the two best horses in the race.