05/07/2002 11:00PM

Derby made too much sense


PHILADELPHIA - Imagine this race scenario: One horse's last Beyer towers over the field. That horse recently arrived in the barn of one of America's leading trainers. That horse got his only two victories of the year by going wire to wire. Nearly every contender's connections were on record as saying they wanted to tuck in behind the early pace.

Does this sound like a 20-1 shot?

Now, if I had only thought like that before the Kentucky Derby, I would have gotten 20-1 on Derby winner War Emblem and justifiably announced that I was a clairvoyant genius. Instead, I missed the point and came home with yet another Derby loser.

Did I consider War Emblem? Absolutely. Did I know Bob Baffert's Derby record? Yes. Did I think this Derby had a lot of early speed? No.

Well, then why didn't I have War Emblem? I simply did not think he was fast enough to get a clear, easy lead. And I was right.

War Emblem was not that fast. Nor did he have to be.

I figured some of the jockeys would be extra cautious after last year's pace fiasco. I just didn't figure so many of them would be comatose. All they did was stare at each other for the first quarter-mile. The run through the stretch the first time looked like the start of the Grand National. It had everything but fences.

Nobody could predict Medaglia d'Oro missing the break. I knew Came Home, who surely could have been in front, wasn't going for the lead. I just figured somebody would show some initiative. Nobody ever did, and the race was over by the first turn.

I bumped into Chris McCarron in the paddock after the race and asked him if what happened was a reaction to the previous year's pace.

"I don't know," McCarron said.

Just a few minutes after Came Home didn't fire, McCarron was understandably lost in his own thoughts. But I knew that given a little time to reflect, he would know. They all would know. They had given War Emblem the Derby.

But make no mistake, it was no fluke. War Emblem had earned a 112 Beyer in the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in his previous start. He could run the figure that was going to win the Derby. But almost everybody assumed he wouldn't do it again because (1) Sportsman's is speed-biased and, (2) there would be no easy lead for him in the Derby.

Well, (2) turned out to be wrong and, (1) was not relevant. We all know 3-year-olds improve dramatically in the springtime. War Emblem just happened to wait until April. With the exception of running style, he looks exactly like Charismatic in 1999.

Both had great last prep races while getting a pre-Derby best last Beyer. Both duplicated that effort in the Derby. Charismatic was even better in the Preakness, when many still thought he was a fluke.

So what happens now with War Emblem? Hard to tell. You know there will be no easy leads in the Preakness, as more speed horses will show up and the jockeys will react to what happened in the Derby.

Is it possible War Emblem has just become a top racehorse, and will run big without the lead or with a challenged lead? Yes. Is it also possible he will cave in if he doesn't get a perfect scenario again? Yes, too.

What we know for sure is that War Emblem got a 114 Beyer in the Derby. We also know that six of the first seven finishers came within four points of their last Beyer. So, the Derby, with one notable exception, went right to form. Came Home (99) actually ran three points better than his Santa Anita Derby win. Harlan's Holiday (96) only ran two points worse than his Blue Grass win. So, those two horses did not go off form at all.

The biggest surprise was Proud Citizen. The colt got a 95 when he won the Lexington Stakes with an easy lead. He got a 108 with a stalking trip when second in the Derby. That was not predictable unless you had watched trainer D. Wayne Lukas's horses run one impossible-to-believe race after another in the days leading up the Derby and on Derby Day itself.

While we are imagining things, imagine this. Two trainers have won 17 of the last 24 Triple Crown races and six of the last eight Derbies. And when their horses run one, two in the 2002 Derby, the exacta pays $1,300.80. No way. That just could not happen.