03/20/2002 12:00AM

Derby preps produce little


COLUMBIA, Md. - We've all heard the old saying, "Pace makes the race." But a recent day at Gulfstream Park had to make you wonder: Does pace also make the speed figure?

The day in question was Feb. 16, and more specifically the ninth race, at a mile and 70 yards. The fractions in this nonwinners-of-two allowance race were ridiculously slow (25.15 seconds, 51.80, 1:16.94), and the final Beyer was correspondingly slow - a shockingly poor 71. The presence in the race of High Star, a Nick Zito-trained 3-year-old prospect, made the figure a subject of controversy.

Some people suggested the final figure should be thrown out because the slow fractions made the race an aberration, not a true reflection of what these horses were capable of running. And when Changein-theweather, who had finished just a head behind High Star, came back to win in his next start with a figure of 85, I began to wonder whether the skeptics might be right. Then, from an earlier race with equally slow fractions that same Feb. 16, a horse named Aplomb came back to improve his Beyer from 72 to 85. The early returns all seemed to point in one direction.

But then came the Florida Derby. Despite that egregiously low Beyer of 71 in High Star's previous start, some people still considered High Star a notable Derby prospect. How would he perform?

Despite sitting well back behind a blazing speed duel, High Star never made a move. In fact, he ran an even more shockingly low Beyer of 53, losing by nearly 30 lengths. But, apparently, he had an excuse: bleeding in the trachea.

So the jury is still out on the basic question of the relationship between pace and final figure, although High Star should at least serve as a warning that finding unproven excuses for a poor Beyer Figure could be hazardous to your parimutuel health.

Just like the Donn Handicap earlier at this meeting, last Saturday's Florida Derby was a disappointment. The winner, Harlan's Holiday, sat a perfect trip behind an insane duel as Smooth Jazz was thrown in as a rabbit to kill off Booklet's early speed. The strategy worked perfectly, except for one minor detail: Nokoma, the intended beneficiary, failed to run at all.

Instead, the speed duel created the ideal set-up for Harlan's Holiday. But, despite the ideal circumstances, Harlan's Holiday still ran one of the slowest winning Beyers (101) in the recent history of the Florida Derby. He did what he needed to do in order to win, but his performance can hardly be described as impressive.

In contrast to this less-than-memorable Florida Derby, two performances on the undercard gave promise of future 3-year-old stars. The James Bond-trained Buddha blitzed an allowance field with a Beyer of 105 at 1 1/16 miles, and Yankee Gentleman - a debut performer for Bill Mott - wired a maiden field at seven furlongs with a figure of 97.

Last Sunday there were three other Derby preps which succeeded in scrambling the picture almost completely:

* The Gotham: Mayakovsky showed he still has the same brilliant speed and enormous talent that he had as a 2-year-old. But he still has to prove he has classic distance credentials. Saarland had to stay much closer to the pace than usual and moved four wide on the turn - a useful race after a layoff (95 Beyer). Now he will have to show in the Wood Memorial that he has the quality to go on to the Derby with just two races under his belt.

* The San Felipe: Trainer Bobby Frankel struck again with the unlikely looking Medaglia d'Oro (107 Beyer), who showed remarkable courage and determination for a horse with only two sprints to his credit.

Siphonic looked sluggish from post parade to finish, never changed leads, and struggled visibly in the final stages. His Beyer of 96 showed no forward progress.

* The Tampa Bay Derby: Equality jumped into the Derby picture with an impressive performance. He broke a bit slowly, rushed up to chase the pace four wide, moved to the lead on the backstretch, and drew off willingly, winning with something left. (103 Beyer).

With the stumbles by some leading prospects (including Repent's unimpressive showing two weeks ago), and the sudden emergence of new faces such as Equality and Medaglia d'Oro - along with Johannesburg lurking in the wings - the mad scramble to the Derby is well under way.