03/17/2005 1:00AM

Derby prep do's and don'ts


NEW YORK - The following list of the last 12 Kentucky Derby winners shows how many weeks before the main event they made starts as 3-year-olds in various prep races:

Smarty Jones: 3, 6, 9, 17

Funny Cide: 3, 8, 15

War Emblem: 4, 7, 11, 14

Monarchos: 3, 8, 13, 16

Fusaichi Pegasus: 3, 7, 11

Charismatic: 2, 4, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15

Real Quiet: 4, 7, 15

Silver Charm: 4, 7, 12

Grindstone: 3, 7, 11

Thunder Gulch: 3, 8, 11

Go for Gin: 3, 8, 11, 15

Sea Hero: 3, 9, 12

The list illustrates two seeming verities about preparing a horse for the Derby. First, all of the above had three to seven Derby preps, not the two that so many trainers seem tempted to try each year, a program that has worked just once in the last 50 years.

Less obviously, every one of them began his 3-year-old campaign from 11 to 17 weeks before Derby Day, not the later starts so often attempted, including those by High Limit, who zoomed into prominence with a front-running Louisiana Derby victory in his season debut last weekend; Declan's Moon, who was going to try to win the Derby with a pair of preps nine and four weeks out until an injury stopped him; and this Saturday's two most prominent history-buckers, Roman Ruler and Rockport Harbor.

Roman Ruler, who makes his 3-year-old debut in the San Felipe at Santa Anita, and Rockport Harbor, who runs in the Rebel at Oaklawn, are both going to try to get to Louisville off just a pair of starts beginning only seven weeks before post time.

The combination of two preps, a seven-week prep window, and physical setbacks (both have had foot problems) make them both look like very shaky Derby prospects, and neither is a lock even to win his 3-year-old debut. Afleet Alex will probably be favored over Rockport Harbor in the Rebel off a sharp comeback sprint victory that gives him a third Derby prep. Roman Ruler is even shakier, as it remains unclear whether two turns is ever going to be his best game.

One wrench in using recent history as a guide to optimal Derby preps is that there have been two significant alterations to the Derby-prep schedule this year. The Wood Memorial, the three-weeks-out start for four of the 12 Derby winners listed above, will be run a week earlier this year. More disruptively, the Florida Derby - the eight-weeks-out start for Go for Gin in 1994, Thunder Gulch in 1995, and Monarchos in 2001 - will instead be run in the no-man's-land of five weeks before the Derby.

Consult the list above and you will not find any 5's in it. This is not a coincidence. No one wants to come into the Derby off a five-week gap, and no one really wants to run twice in those 35 days. Five weeks just does not work as either an ultimate or penultimate prep.

Management at Gulfstream Park, however, decided it was more important to try to keep big stables from deserting Florida before April than to run the Florida Derby where it has worked so well, as a next-to-last prep before a final tuneup in the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass. Once the Florida Derby had been rescheduled out of that range, Aqueduct went ahead and moved the Wood up a week, since obviously no horse would be able to run in both races this year.

The net result will be a weaker and less significant Florida Derby being run at an awkward time and with a cast growing familiar from the Aventura, Holy Bull, and Fountain of Youth - High Fly, Bandini, and Closing Argument are the prospective starring cast. So the Kentucky Derby starters who emerge from this year's Florida Derby will be untested by top prospects from other circuits, as well as having five weeks to kill until the main event. Perhaps the race will be moved back where it belongs next season.

There are plenty of silly "rules" about winning the Derby that are broken from time to time, and not every historical precedent holds up. Still, those that coincide with common sense are probably worth noting. Having just two preps, starting a campaign this late, or concluding your prep season five weeks out all look like very risky ways to get to Louisville in peak shape, which is bad news if you like Rockport Harbor, Roman Ruler, High Fly, or Bandini this year.