04/30/2007 12:00AM

Derby figures to take leap of faith

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NEW YORK - There has already been a great deal of discussion about the so-called Derby Rules and how they apply to the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Seven of the potential top 10 betting choices in this Derby will be attempting to defy such longstanding Derby qualifications as 2-year-old racing experience, three or more preps at 3, and sufficient number of career starts, or will be hoping to emulate Barbaro's feat last year of becoming the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby having not raced in five or more weeks.

But talk about Derby Rules threatens to overshadow an equally valid issue, and that is how incredibly closely matched the field is on paper.

In the run-up to almost every Kentucky Derby, there is a horse - or two - who achieves a breakthrough in terms of speed figures. This, of course, does not automatically give such a horse the keys to the Derby, but it does make him a key to handicapping the race. Some years, the betting public remains skeptical of the speed figure breakthrough, as was the case with War Emblem in 2002. Few took the big figure War Emblem earned in the Illinois Derby at face value, and missed the boat when he came back to win the Kentucky Derby at a $43 win mutuel. Other years, the public buys into the speed-figure breakthrough, like with Bellamy Road. He was sent off the favorite in the 2005 Derby off his giant figure Wood Memorial win, but finished seventh.

This season, everyone waited for the breakthrough. It never happened. The Beyer Speed Figure of 103 that Curlin earned for his 10 1/2-length romp in the Arkansas Derby, which in many years might be good enough for fifth- or sixth-best in the Derby field, is the highest this year by any Derby aspirant. Not surprisingly, Curlin's 103 isn't best by much. There are 10 other candidates (Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Street Sense, Great Hunter, Hard Spun, Tiago, Sam P., Cowtown Cat, Nobiz Like Shobiz, and Scat Daddy) who in their last two starts earned Beyers that fall within 5 points of Curlin's 103.

Now, 5 Beyer points can be a determining factor if you're torn between two horses in a conventional race. But when you're dealing with 11 horses in the context of the Kentucky Derby, 5 Beyer points could not be more insignificant. Such a small point spread, which equates to a little more than three lengths at the distance, is dwarfed by factors like pace, trip, and in a 20-horse Derby field, racing luck.

This situation can be advantageous to a horse capable of engineering a Beyer breakthrough on Saturday and, assuming at least one horse will step it up, spell trouble for those incapable of raising their games. Of course, this is where opinion comes in, but I can see Circular Quay, Great Hunter, Nobiz Like Shobiz, and Scat Daddy among those falling into the latter group. Circular Quay did earn a 102 Beyer winning the Louisiana Derby, but he could have trouble just matching that off an eight-week layoff. Great Hunter has to prove his 101 in the Robert Lewis wasn't an aberration. And Nobiz Like Shobiz and Scat Daddy have yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer, and both have already had enough starts where they should have attended to that.

So who is primed for a Beyer breakthrough Saturday? Curlin might be, especially if he is as much of a freak as he intimated he might be with the way he won all three of his starts. But I think Street Sense and Any Given Saturday are sitting on big Beyer performances. Street Sense predictably regressed last time out in the Blue Grass after earning a 102 in his gut-wrenching decision over Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby off a layoff, and yet still almost won. And, of course, Street Sense earned the Derby field's best overall Beyer of 108 when he romped in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall at Churchill Downs. Any Given Saturday is a near mirror image of Street Sense. He also regressed off the Tampa Bay Derby when he was third most recently in the Wood Memorial, but he ran fast at Churchill as a 2-year-old when he earned a 100 Beyer in his near-miss in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

For me, separating Street Sense and Any Given Saturday isn't easy. Street Sense's appeal includes the duplication of the pattern that led to his big Breeders' Cup win, as he is again moving from Keeneland's Polytrack to the main track at Churchill. Any Given Saturday's attraction is he might go off as much as three times the price that Street Sense will.

Hey, that's why they invented exotic wagers.