02/14/2003 12:00AM

Derby picture is fuzzy - as usual

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PHOENIX - Vindication is out. Toccet's bad ankle makes his status murky. Things are moving slowly with Sky Mesa, perhaps too slowly. Hold That Tiger's connections have said, "No thank you" to a Kentucky invitation. Empire Maker got beat and then reportedly spiked a fever, and as hyped as he is, he is still eligible for an N1X. What's a Kentucky Derby prognosticator to do?

Before getting too carried away with things, remember, it's mid-February. You've got plenty of time to worry about the Derby. Want proof? Look back where previous Derby winners were at mid-February of their big year.

Grindstone made his 3-year-old debut Feb. 16 of his Derby year, but he was defeated handily in a mile N1X race. Silver Charm had already shown himself to be a good horse, having won the Grade 3 San Vicente, a sprint. Real Quiet was licking his wounds after a 22-plus-length defeat in the California Derby at Golden Gate. Charismatic was seemingly going nowhere. On Feb. 11 of his Derby-winning year, he was losing by a neck in a $62,500 claiming sprint at Santa Anita, though he would get the win via disqualification. He then ran second twice more, and was a non-factor fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

Fusaichi Pegasus, of course, was all the rage, but by this time of his Derby year he still had only a maiden sprint win to his credit. He had yet to defeat winners, had yet to run a route. Monarchos was progressing well at this time in his Derby year, but he had yet to run in a stakes race. In fact, by this time of year, the best result he had to his credit was a win in an N1X. And War Emblem at this stage had finished fifth in the Lecomte at 12-1, then sixth, beaten almost 10 lengths, in the Grade 3 Risen Star at 38-1, hardly looking like a Derby winner.

In other words, take anything you see and hear now about the Derby with a grain of salt. Things change rapidly and significantly in the time it takes to get from mid-February to Churchill on the first Saturday in May. Put down your notes and thoughts about the 3-year-olds and the Derby scene in pencil because you likely will need an eraser.

Which is one reason I am in no way giving up on Ten Most Wanted. He finished fourth behind Man Among Men and Empire Maker in the Feb. 7 Sham at Santa Anita, but it's too early to give up on him, and there were mitigating circumstances.

"He came out of it with the worst trip a horse could possibly have," trainer Wally Dollase said. "He got clobbered at the start and because of that, he ran scared the first part of it. [Jockey Kent] Desormeaux came to the barn after the races and said, 'That wasn't the plan. He was going so hard I didn't want to choke him down. I thought maybe he'd start relaxing. Then, when he got along the other side of that horse [pacesetter Truckle Feature], he got competitive and I was in trouble.'"

The fast pace didn't help, either. Ten Most Wanted pressed the pace through a half-mile in 46.31, which is too fast for 1 1/8 miles.

"Going 48 and change is where you want to be," Dollase said. "So he just ran out of gas. He's so green, that's his problem. He just needs to run behind horses and relax, and he won't do it if he's on the pace like that.

"It's discouraging, but as hard as he got hit - it wasn't a brush, it was a smash - he got excited and took off."

Like I said, be patient. There's a long way to go.

A rising star in the Risen Star?

Sunday's Risen Star at the Fair Grounds is an intriguing race that should provide more clues on the 3-year-old puzzle. First of all, there isn't much proven class in the field. What with so many of the big 3-year-olds either sidelined or awaiting other races, this 1 1/16-mile race gives a number of young upstarts a chance to show they belong.

Favoritism may well fall to unbeaten Indy Dancer, who was impressive at Gulfstream, or even local hope Seattle Hoofer, a son of Seattle Slew last seen blasting allowance foes over this track. Saintly Look, who looked great winning the Lecomte, also figures to get heavy backing.

But one upstart with speed is Badge of Silver. At this stage of the game, at this distance, his rash use of early speed isn't going to be a detriment.

Badge of Silver worked well Monday, going five furlongs in 1:00.20 with Robby Albarado up. Badge of Silver had a major seven-furlong work last week, and this was to be an easier breeze with the Risen Star six days away, but the work was the fastest of 43 at the distance.

"I'm telling you, we didn't let him go at all," said trainer Ronny Werner. "He just did that as easily as could be."

The Risen Star will be Badge of Silver's first stakes race and first start around two turns. Unbeaten in two races, Badge of Silver returned from a layoff due to injury at Fair Grounds Jan. 23 with a strong win going six furlongs. He won by seven lengths, and his time of 1:09.70 earned a Beyer of 108.

A Derby horse? Who knows? I'm not handicapping the Derby. But he could very well be the Risen Star horse.