05/10/2002 12:00AM

Derby critics were wrong on two counts

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PHOENIX - The horses hadn't even returned to be unsaddled yet, and you could hear the naysayers from Turf Club to the picnic area in the infield: "He got away with murder on the front end . . . Baffert and the Prince bought the Derby . . ."

Rubbish. Give credit where it is due. Just because you had to tear up your Derby mutuel tickets (and I was with you) doesn't mean the result wasn't legitimate. It just means we were wrong.

Let's dismiss one notion right off the bat. War Emblem didn't go particularly slow; his pace was thoroughly reasonable. It may have seemed slow since we're used to kamikaze types in the Derby going 45 and 1:09 before they start hailing for cabs by the far turn. War Emblem's reasonable splits were 23.25, 47.04, 1:11.75, and 1:36.70 on his way to a final time of 2:01.13, the ninth fastest Derby on a track that played quicker than par but was nothing like the freeway we saw last year.

Considering you're asking a 3-year-old to go 1 1/4 miles, probably for the first time, these splits are thoroughly in line. But 45, 1:09 in the Derby? That would be ridiculous.

And if the pace was so slow, where were all the pacepressers? Proud Citizen went 48 and 1:12.20 for his half-mile and six-furlong splits in the Lexington, so it's not stunning he couldn't keep up. But where were Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, and Medaglia d'Oro? Came Home set a 47.40 half split in winning the San Rafael. He was a length off a 44.80 half split in the San Vicente. He was just off 46.80, 1:10.80 splits when he won his Santa Anita Derby. Harlan's Holiday was just off a 46.80 half in the Fountain of Youth and right on a 47 half in the Blue Grass. Medaglia d'Oro set 46.80, 1:10 splits in the Wood after also pressing fast splits in the San Felipe (46.80, 1:10.60).

If War Emblem were indeed going slow, you would expect at least a few of these would have been right on his butt. They weren't.

Now the reasonable pace did effectively kill the chances of deep closers such as Saarland and Essence of Dubai and a few others. And in defense of Medaglia d'Oro, he had a rough first run down the stretch, which may well have cost him the necessary position. He kept to his task well to end up fourth and to me is the primary danger to War Emblem's Preakness hopes next Saturday.

At least Eddie Delahoussaye on Perfect Drift realized what was happening. Perfect Drift has been primarily a closer from midpack, but Eddie saw what was going on and got his horse involved early, and looked as though he would be the major threat turning for home. Alas, he just couldn't keep up with War Emblem.

In other words, War Emblem's idea of slow is still faster than what the rest could handle.

As far as the charge that Prince Salman bought the Derby . . . Baffert and The Thoroughbred Corp. paid about $900,000 for War Emblem but that was after his big Illinois Derby win, so he had proven form. Anyone else could have called Russell Reineman and trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer and tried to buy him.

To Baffert's credit, he complimented the care given War Emblem by his previous connections. "My quickest training job," he said. "I'm just really thankful for the connections this horse had before he was sold."

So will War Emblem win the Preakness or maybe more? Let's not get carried away. It's not inconceivable that Medaglia d'Oro and Harlan's Holiday will do better in the Preakness by getting more involved in the pace. Proud Citizen is obviously heading the right way.

But right now War Emblem is the king of the hill, and anyone who dares put an asterisk by his win is only hurting themselves when it comes to handicapping the next big

3-year-old event and getting a true gauge on what happened this first Saturday in May.