03/29/2002 12:00AM

Contrarian view is rosier


NEW YORK - Why is everybody so grumpy about this year's 3-year-olds?

With just five weeks until the Kentucky Derby, everyone seems more eager to bury this crop than to praise it. Wise guys and simpletons alike are saying that the Derby picture is more chaotic than ever and the way to go is to find an unheralded longshot now because this is a year when any allowance horse could mature quickly enough to overtake the division's leaders. Charismatic's name is being invoked more often than when he was Horse of the Year.

Typical of the desperate search for a new face was the attention accorded Sunday Break's appearance in an allowance race at Aqueduct last Wednesday. Because this colt has a Japanese owner and Neil Drysdale as a trainer, he seemed to be considered a potential Fusaichi Pegasus. Never mind that Drysdale calls the comparison absurd, that Sunday Break has yet to run in a stakes race, and that his slow and unprofessional victory at 1-5 was thoroughly unimpressive.

What's so awful about the five top-rated colts on Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch? There's usually no percentage in defending those at the top from the skepticism of sharpies, but when the contrarians are in the majority it sometimes pays to be counter-contrary.

Each of the five favorites will make one more start as a legitimate favorite in a prep race. Three go next Saturday: Repent in the Illinois Derby, Came Home in the Santa Anita Derby, and Johannesburg in the Foster's Trial at Lingfield in England. The following Saturday, it's Harlan's Holiday in the Blue Grass and Medaglia d'Oro in the Wood Memorial.

If they all run up the track, let the whining begin, but there's no reason that should happen. In fact, each of them may have more upside than he's being credited with these days.

Start with Harlan's Holiday. Normally, a stretch-running, 3 1/2-length winner of the Florida Derby would command respect and even fear, but the colt's perfect trip and tepid winning speed figure have nearly emptied his bandwagon. It's reminiscent of the reaction to the 1990 Florida Derby winner, who won by daylight in moderate time but drifted to 10-1 by Derby Day. Unbridled continued to move forward, and so can Harlan's Holiday.

This year's Florida Derby was a weirdly run race, not just because of blazing early fractions but also because the stretch-runners who benefited moved so strongly in the middle of the race. Every horse, even the drawing-away winner, was tired late. Only the first three finishers ran their last three furlongs in under 41 seconds, and they were running that segment in the 38- to 39-second range.

The only colt more vilified than Harlan's Holiday is Repent. The enthusiasm generated by his easy, eight-wide Risen Star victory in his season debut dissipated in the wake of his grinding, ugly photo-finish nod in the Louisiana Derby. You could also say that he won without firing anything close to his best shot and has nothing but room for improvement. He may well be a bet-against underlay May 4, but he loves the Churchill track, is a cinch to get the distance, and seems likely to be around at the finish.

What's not to like about Medaglia d'Oro? His 107 Beyer Speed Figure winning the San Felipe was the best of the year in a Derby prep and it came in just his third career start. If you're looking for a quickly developing, lightly raced Derby prospect in the mold of Fusaichi Pegasus or Monarchos, this is your horse.

Came Home hasn't done anything wrong this year and it used to be commonplace for the previous year's fastest juvenile to turn into a legitimate classic contender. Just because he's quick doesn't mean he's not allowed to stretch out, and his runaway victory going a mile in the San Rafael suggested than nine furlongs is well within his scope and 10 might not be impossible.

Then there's the ultimate wild card, Johannesburg. His prospects of showing up at all are no better than even money, given that the British bookies make him the 2-1 co-favorite for the 2000 Guineas and only the 5-1 third choice for the Kentucky Derby. If he jogs at Lingfield and is sent here, it's hard to imagine his price will justify the risks and drawbacks: a single, short prep race, a suspect pedigree, the fact that he ran significantly slower winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile than Tempera did winning the Juvenile Fillies. Still, he did drown the Americans that day, and bad horses don't win their first seven starts.

The Derby may seem awfully close, but it's still 100 late developments away from sorting itself out. Let's at least wait until June to knock the crop. In the meantime, if anyone is so sure this year's Derby picture is utter chaos that he wants to give me 3-1 on a five-horse entry of Harlan's Holiday, Repent, Johannesburg, Medaglia d'Oro, and Came Home, let's talk.