04/22/2003 11:00PM

This Derby less confusing than last one

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PHILADELPHIA - A year ago, the Kentucky Derby puzzle did not have an apparent solution. Strong opinions hardly existed. Nearly everybody was confused. It looked like one of the hardest handicapping propositions in the history of racing.

By the time the horses (or rather horse) passed the wire the first time all the confusion was gone. I turned to my colleague Andrew Beyer in the Churchill Downs press box and suggested that the race might already be over. War Emblem, with the best last-race Beyer, was loose on the lead. If he duplicated his Illinois Derby performance, he was going to win.

What was semi-obvious by the first turn became obvious to everybody when War Emblem turned into the stretch with the same lead. What seemed so confusing before the race became so simple in the running.

The fastest horse got the lead and won easily. We've all seen the same race a million times. We just weren't used to seeing it in the Derby. It was a race in which nothing really happened.

One well-known writer was so unhappy with the lack of action that he promptly said this was his last Derby.

When they posted the four-digit Bob Baffert-D. Wayne Lukas exacta, everybody started looking at each other in the universal post-race epiphany: Why didn't we think of that?

This Derby, frankly, appears much less confusing. Ten of the horses in a projected 18-horse field have not won an open stakes race. In fact, the entire field has won a total of just 16 graded stakes, including four Grade 1's, seven Grade 2's, and five Grade 3's.

Six of the likely starters have not earned a triple-digit Beyer. They can safely be eliminated.

Six weeks ago, Empire Maker was an underachiever with one career victory. Now, he is the Derby's hottest favorite since Arazi.

What does that tell you? This is not a distinguished group.

Take nothing away from Empire Maker. Clearly, this is a colt with great ability. Trainer Bobby Frankel knows what he sees in the mornings. It just took the colt a few races (and the addition of blinkers) to demonstrate it to the public.

Empire Maker deserves to be a heavy favorite. But he is so big a favorite by default. There is just no other horse that has accomplished enough or run fast enough to get anybody excited.

Is there a War Emblem in this field? Not likely.

There is almost no early speed. There is not a single confirmed front-runner.

Incredibly, only three horses (Funny Cide, Peace Rules, and Indian Express) have ever had a clear lead after the first call of any race. Only Peace Rules (in the Blue Grass) and Indian Express (twice in Panama) ever have gone wire to wire to win.

It's hard to tell what those Panama races mean, but Indian Express's duel for the lead in the Santa Anita Derby suggests he could be your pacesetter. Clearly, Baffert, the colt's trainer, understands the value of early speed. And remember I told you a while back that Utah-breds are always dangerous.

Last year, all jockeys except Victor Espinoza seemed paralyzed recalling the suicidal pace of the 2001 Derby. This year, some enterprising rider can gain a great tactical edge should he choose to be aggressive. The problem, of course, is that several riders might entertain the same idea.

Ultimately, the problem with the Derby is that it is the Derby. Stuff happens in this race that never happens in other races. Riders panic. Trainers panic. Bettors panic.

Once you get beyond the past performances, you must try to think along with the participants. A really smart person might have deduced that the wild pace of the 2001 Derby would have an effect on the 2002 Derby. That person then could have found War Emblem.

Sadly, I was not that person. I am just the person who was told by a very wise man on March 10 that Empire Maker was a lock to win the Kentucky Derby. Seems like he might have been on to something.