04/18/2005 12:00AM

Derby picture comes into focus


NEW YORK - As for the Kentucky Derby, Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park did exactly what was most helpful for handicappers. These races helped to identify two legitimate contenders for the May 7 Derby while at the same time exposing those who are not. They also added to the suspicion that the 3-year-olds in some parts of the country are distinctly better than those elsewhere. When the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby are taken in combination with the preps that took place on April 2 and April 9, the picture for the Kentucky Derby appears much clearer.

Although Afleet Alex may have been a little more visually impressive winning the as well as slightly faster - Afleet Alex's winning Beyer Speed Figure was 108, Bandini's was 103 - the Blue Grass imparted a lot of information, so I will address that race first.

First and most obvious, the Blue Grass marked Bandini as a serious threat to win the 131st running of the Derby. Despite making his fifth start of the year two weeks later than originally planned because of a foot bruise, and being caught three wide around both turns, Bandini ran away from the previously undefeated favorite, High Limit, as though he were tied to the eighth pole, scoring by an emphatic six lengths.

In the process, Bandini was much more professional than he was finishing an unfocused, narrowly beaten second in his previous start, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, to High Fly, who came back to win the Florida Derby. And, Bandini continued his trend of improving each time he races.

In the Blue Grass, Bandini's smashing victory and a respectable third by Closing Argument - in his first race since he won the Holy Bull at Gulfstream more than two months earlier - underscore the strength of this year's prep races in south Florida. High Fly, who won the Aventura in addition to the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, was the most accomplished 3-year-old during the prep season at Gulfstream. But, the Blue Grass result also boosted the stock of Noble Causeway, who ran the same type of race in defeat to High Fly when second in the Florida Derby as Bandini did when second in the Fountain of Youth.

Conversely, the form of High Limit's Louisiana Derby took another hit with a weak Blue Grass performance. The outcome of the Louisiana Derby, which was blurred by a speed bias, had already taken a beating when four horses who finished behind High Limit came back with performances ranging from dull to terrible. It could be that High Limit, who sat off the early lead for the first time Saturday, is not as effective when not in control of the pace. But there is little positive to take from that. Can you see anyone, especially Bellamy Road, conceding the early lead in the Derby to High Limit just to make him more comfortable? Besides, High Limit fell off 12 Beyer points from Fair Grounds to Keeneland, and that's a ton.

Speaking of questionable form, Southern California 3-year-old form was already open to serious question. Papi Chullo was walloped in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby after a sharp second in the Sham. General John B came back from a distant eighth in the Fountain of Youth to be a narrowly beaten second in the Santa Anita Derby. Going Wild stopped on a dime in the Wood Memorial after winning the San Miguel and Sham and finishing a sharp second in the Santa Catalina.

Southern California form was taken down yet another notch in the Blue Grass. Consolidator, who was coming off a big win in the San Felipe that may have been aided by a speed bias, was an outrun fifth in the Blue Grass, more than 13 lengths behind Bandini.

Lastly, the Blue Grass told us that Sun King's very slow Tampa Bay Derby win (91 Beyer) should not have been so easily glossed over as a public workout, and may have actually been an accurate indicator of his current form. Sun King ran pretty much the same race Saturday, but all that did was put him slightly more than nine lengths behind Bandini at the finish.

The Arkansas Derby said something similar about Greater Good, who was a close second choice in the betting behind Afleet Alex off recent victories in the Southwest and Rebel, which had made him 4 for 4 in races around two turns. But when he won the Rebel, Greater Good earned a career best Beyer of only 95, which simply will not get it done in top-level 3-year-old races. He fell off 7 Beyer points Saturday, but in a more strongly run race, which left him 12 lengths behind Afleet Alex in fifth.

By a long way, the most important message of the Arkansas Derby was that Afleet Alex - like Bandini, Bellamy Road, and the colts out of Gulfstream - is one of the ones when it comes to most likely winners of the Kentucky Derby. The early pace in this Arkansas Derby was pedestrian, but Afleet Alex still rallied powerfully, and it was hard not to be impressed by the way he ran through the wire. That, as much as pedigree and training, is a critical consideration when the biggest question these 3-year-olds face next is the ability to handle 1 1/4 miles.