03/19/2008 11:00PM

Derby picture out of focus


NEW YORK - The race doing business as the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on Saturday has had six different names in its 36-year history, and maybe it's time for a seventh: This year's running looks like the Isanybodyanygood Stakes.

While only one of the 12 entrants has already amassed enough earnings to run in the Kentucky Derby, and whoever wins the race will earn $300,000, the equivalent of an automatic starting berth, it's entirely unclear whether there is a truly Derby-worthy 3-year-old in the field.

History suggests it's unwise to underestimate the race, which was known as the Spiral Stakes from 1972 to 1981, the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes in 1982 and 1983, the Jim Beam Stakes from 1984 through 1998, the Galleryfurniture.com Stakes in 1999, the Turfway Spiral Stakes in 2000 and 2001, and the Lane's End Stakes ever since. Whatever the name of the race, or the track (Latonia became Turfway in 1988), it has yielded classic winners Lil E. Tee, Summer Squall, Hansel, Prairie Bayou, and Birdstone as well as Grade 1 winners such as Serena's Song, Broad Brush, Balto Star, Perfect Drift, Flower Alley, and Hard Spun.

Any hope that there's a worthy successor among Saturday's dozen entrants rests mainly with the only three stakes winners in the field - Cannonball, Halo Najib, and Turf War, though none carry typical Triple Crown trail credentials. Cannonball, a New York-bred gelding, won the ungraded King Cugat on the grass and was unplaced against statebreds in his only two dirt starts. Halo Najib won the restricted OBS Stakes, one of only two career victories, but both were on synthetic tracks like the one he will run on in the Lane's End.

Turf War is making his second start of the year after racking up $400,000 in graded earnings when dead-heating with Z Humor in the $1 million Delta Jackpot in December, a race that at first looked like a promising one but is not aging well in retrospect. The Jackpot earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 96, highly respectable for a 2-year-old route race, but the horses who ran in it have gone 0 for 12 since and none has matched the figure he earned that night. It is turning into one of the most dramatic examples in recent years of what some handicappers call a "negative key race."

* Z Humor was sixth as the 6-5 favorite in the Sam Davis on Feb. 16 and then a distant fourth in the Fountain of Youth eight days later, earning Beyers of 79 and 84.

* Turf War ran ninth as the 2-1 favorite in the Southwest on Feb. 18, following his 96 in the Jackpot with an 83.

* Golden Yank, third in the Jackpot, returned with a poor fourth in the Rebel last Saturday, dropping from a 96 to an 82.

* Overextended, who earned a 91 finishing a close fifth in the Jackpot, fell to a 73 finishing ninth in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park.

* St. Joe, sixth in the Jackpot, has been beaten 64 lengths in two starts at Gulfstream this winter.

* Cave's Valley, seventh in the Jackpot, was sixth as the 2-1 favorite in the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 2.

None of this bodes well for either Turf War or Racecar Rhapsody, the fourth-place Jackpot finisher who makes his season debut in the Lane's End.

An interesting facet of this seemingly false form of the Jackpot is that Z Humor had been one of the yardstick horses in this crop after finishing third in the Champagne, beaten just three lengths by War Pass and 1 1/2 lengths by Pyro, the two current favorites for the Derby. When War Pass and Pyro returned to run one-two in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Z Humor came back to dead heat in the Jackpot, all three of them looked solid.

Now, though, after Z Humor's two subsequent losses, Pyro's two slow victories at Fair Grounds and War Pass's dismal race in the Tampa Bay Derby last Saturday, the top of the crop is in disarray.

It's only six weeks until the Derby but that's an eternity on the road to Louisville. A single big performance in the final round of April preps, like Bellamy Road's Wood Memorial in 2005 or Sweetnorthernsaint's Illinois Derby in 2006, could leave us with an entirely new and heretofore unheralded Derby favorite. It's getting a bit late in the game for none of the two-turn Derby preps to have been won with a triple-digit Beyer yet, and the first one might anoint a new leader.

It still seems pretty unlikely it will be a horse who ran in the Jackpot, or who will run Saturday in the Lane's End, but the door to the improbable seems to be opening wider with each passing week this year.