01/15/2003 12:00AM

Derby getting even pricier

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PHILADELPHIA - Very few events in sports become bigger every year. They generally peak and either plateau or fall off.

If television ratings are your only guide, just about every championship-caliber event has already peaked. There are, however, so many more choices on TV now that it is difficult to assess what the declining ratings really mean.

Sometimes, it's just a feeling. And my feeling is that the Kentucky Derby is bigger than it has ever been.

Every time a 2-year-old runs fast in the summer or fall or a 3-year-old runs fast in the early winter, the word Derby is mentioned before the horse hits the winner's circle. Did anybody scream Derby when Bold Ruler won his maiden in his first start on April 9, 1956, at Jamaica?

Was anybody even writing about the Derby in January? Were there Derby Watches? Or future book bets sponsored by Churchill Downs?

The Derby really has become an obsession, which makes it unlike anything in American sports. How else do you explain this scene?

In the middle of the second quarter of last Saturday night's Eagles-Falcons NFL playoff game in Philadelphia, Dan Borislow, the owner of Toccet, was frantically trying to get a VCR to work in his penthouse suite at Veterans Stadium. He didn't want to tape the game. He wanted to show his guests Toccet's races in the Champagne Stakes, Laurel Futurity, Remsen, and Hollywood Futurity.

The Derby does that to people when they have a legitimate chance. It even does it to people who have no chance.

Why is that every year so many people want to enter their horses in the Derby? Why is it necessary to have two gates every year?

Guess what? War Emblem just made the whole thing impossible. Everybody is going to think he has a chance. A good horse in the barn is no longer relevant. If you don't have one, buy one If you can.

Trying to buy a good young horse these days has become almost as hard as winning the Derby. Most owners are afraid to sell. After all, who wants to sell the Derby winner once the horse has shown ability on the track? Thus, the prices for even the most obscurely bred horses have gone through the roof.

A hot young 3-year-old these days is the equivalent of a Northern Dancer yearling in the mid-1980's. There is really no price that will make any owner completely happy.

Forty years ago, the hottest 3-year-old in the land was Candy Spots. He raced three times in 1962, all at Arlington Park. He won every time. He raced three times in the winter and spring of 1963 at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. He won every time.

In today's market, $2 million wouldn't even get you in owner/breeder Rex Ellsworth's area code. Trainer Mesh Tenney would not be returning phone calls from any suitors.

By the way, Candy Spots finished third in the Derby at 3-2. Chateaugay (9-1) was the winner.

Breeding a contender is possible. Buying a contender at the sales is possible. Buying a ready-made contender is also possible, although it is getting harder by the minute. Winning the Derby? Now, that remains the problem.