04/04/2007 12:00AM

Derby favorite yet to emerge

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PHILADELPHIA - Where is Florida? When the NCAA Tournament began, we had a definitive favorite, a team that had actually done what it was being asked to do.

I am not seeing Florida among the 460 Triple Crown nominees. I am not even seeing Florida among the most obvious Kentucky Derby contenders. And I am not happy about this.

Just back from the Final Four, where Florida did a Smarty Jones on the field, I know what excellence looks like. I just don't see it. At least, not yet. Which means I have to work to find the Derby winner. And I am way too tired to think clearly enough for any serious work.

So, over the next two weekends, I am looking for one of this group which all look alike to emerge and become the favorite, if not Florida. No George Masons. Give me something obvious.

Go through the contenders and there is not a single horse that has gotten more than a 103 Beyer this year. Expect one or more horses to blow up in this Saturday's Wood Memorial or next Saturday's Blue Grass.

Street Sense is the most likely candidate to get to the number that will win the Derby. His 102 in the Tampa Bay Derby was definitive proof that the 108 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was no fluke. I would expect Street Sense to get back into the 108 range next weekend. If so, that is your Derby favorite.

Any Given Saturday got the same 102 when nosed by Street Sense. That got the colt back to the 100 he earned in the Kentucky Jockey Club last year. I would expect this colt's Beyer to shoot up as well.

Great Hunter made the requisite 3-year-old jump in his comeback race when he got a 101 Beyer. Never worse than third in eight starts and with a very pleasing style, he is certainly a serious contender in what looks like a mini-Derby in the Blue Grass.

The magic number this year seems to be 102. That's what Circular Quay got in the Louisiana Derby. He could go forward as well.

I am starting to get irritated by Nobiz Like Shobiz. The second coming of Pegasus has yet to hit triple figures on the Beyer scale, but gets bet every time like the race is a walkover. Maybe the Wood will be when the colt lives up to the hype.

Scat Daddy is the very definition of solid, but, with a lifetime Beyer of 98, he is still very much of a Derby question.

I thought Curlin's win in the Rebel was the most visually impressive of any of the preps. After the colt got a 101 in his debut, millions changed hands before that second race. Curlin got a 98, but I am thinking there is more there.

Hard Spun caught a really weak field in the Lane's End, but ran like a very good horse, getting a 101 Beyer. Running back in the Blue Grass against what will be a killer field and then back in the Derby may be asking a lot in a very little time.

The top Beyer among the most obvious contenders belongs to King of the Roxy, a colt who was not even considered for the Derby until he got a 103 in the Hutcheson. Todd Pletcher, who apparently will be well represented in the Derby, trains him.

Chelokee has no figures and, presuming 20 horses appear - remember when 20 was a novelty and not pre-ordained? - doesn't have enough graded earnings for the Derby. However, I am very intrigued, and not just because Michael Matz trains the colt. I just wonder what kind of Beyer Chelokee could earn with a clean trip.

Now that I have talked myself through all these contenders, I admit I am about as confused as when this exercise began. The Beyers and the horses just look too much alike. Anybody with a definitive opinion at this point is probably just deceiving himself. There is just nothing that jumps off the page.

Now Florida, it jumped off the page. Those Gators were like seeing a terrific Derby winner coming back to be a great 4-year-old. They were Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, and Alysheba. They were a throwback.

Still looking for Florida in this group. Maybe soon. Better be soon. Kentucky beckons. I can taste the burgoo and Derby Pie (pronounced paaaah) already.