04/10/2007 12:00AM

Derby pretenders falling by wayside


Some recent developments have dramatically altered the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

First, Stormello flopped in the Florida Derby after looking so strong finishing second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. With other high-octane speed expected in the Derby, his front-running style - especially at 1 1/4 miles - would be compromised.

Notional, who finished second to Scat Daddy in the Florida Derby, is by In Excess and is highly questionable at 1 1/4 miles.

Next, there was the announcement last week that the Lane's End Stakes winner Hard Spun won't race in the Blue Grass Stakes and might not run in the Kentucky Derby. He may go straight to the Derby, or run in the Lexington Stakes and point to the Preakness. The deciding factor will be how Hard Spun takes to the Churchill Downs surface in a workout this week.

If Hard Spun works well, he must be considered one of the big Derby threats. From one of the last crops of the late champion sire Danzig (who has never sired a Derby winner), he hails from one of the truly great Darby Dan female families that produced the 1974 Preakness and Belmont winner, Little Current, and the 1963 Derby and Belmont winner, Chateaugay, as well as a champion racemare and Broodmare of the Year Primonetta.

Sedgefield, who was second to Hard Spun in the Lane's End, is off the Derby trail after failing to get enough graded stakes earnings when he ran poorly as the favorite on the turf in the Transylvania Stakes.

Then came the rather disturbing news that Todd Pletcher would train the Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay up to the Derby instead of running as planned in the Wood Memorial Stakes last weekend. Now, it was one thing for Barbaro to go to the Derby off a planned five-week schedule, but quite another for Circular Quay to have an unplanned eight-week layoff going into the Derby. Who knows? In this ever-changing era of training fragile Thoroughbreds, Circular Quay might get the job done. But somehow I have a lot less confidence than I did one week ago. It is really unfortunate, because Circular Quay, who was bred to relish 1 1/4 miles, loves Churchill Downs - having won twice and finished second in three starts over that surface - and would have been among my top choices.

Finally, last week's three big Derby preps - the Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby - helped to clarify the Derby picture as well.

In winning the Wood Memorial, Nobiz Like Shobiz regained much of the luster that he lost after a disappointing third as the heavy favorite in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. While not dazzling, Nobiz Like Shobiz was very professional, contesting the early pace and then holding off Sightseeing by a half-length.

Nobiz Like Shobiz, by far the best runner by Albert the Great, is well-equipped to handle the Derby distance. He is a grandson of 1994 Derby winner Go for Gin, and the key to his high class is his female family inbreeding to the influential producer Swoon's Tune, creating the coveted Rasmussen Factor.

Sightseeing was a last-minute entrant for the Wood only after Circular Quay was not entered. A confirmed closer, he is by Pulpit and out of Resort (by Pleasant Colony), who was second in the Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 1/2 miles. Clearly, Sightseeing is a 1 1/4-mile horse and deserves a chance in Louisville.

Any Given Saturday, who was originally expected to race in the Blue Grass, was entered in the Wood, and his third-place finish was the result of his taxing effort finishing a nose behind Street Sense in a stretch-long battle in the Tampa Bay Derby less than three weeks earlier. Any Given Saturday was vulnerable in the Wood, but he just needed to finish in the top four to have enough graded earnings to run in the Derby. Any Given Saturday will be a much sharper animal in Kentucky and should not be dismissed off this effort.

Summer Doldrums ran gamely in the Wood but is not a Derby horse. Trainer Rick Violette should have fun spotting him in other stakes this year, and because he is a son of Street Cry (Machiavellian), I would like to see him try turf.

Cowtown Cat took advantage of his tactical speed and a souped-up Hawthorne rail to go wire to wire in the Illinois Derby. Like Any Given Saturday, he is by Distorted Humor (the sire of 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide) but once again, the most important aspect of his pedigree is that he, too, is a Rasmussen Factor, as he is inbred to Pocahontas, through her sons Tom Rolfe (1965 3-year-old champion) and Chieftain.

Conversely, Cobalt Blue, who finished seventh as the even-money favorite in the Illinois Derby, was never bred to be effective going 1 1/4 miles. His sire, Golden Missile (by A.P. Indy), won at middle distances as an older horse and finished third behind Cat Thief and Budroyale in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic, but with three full crops to race, his offspring have shown a decided preference as sprinter-milers. Cobalt Blue gets some stamina from his damsire, El Prado, but his second and third damsires - Star de Naskra and Cornish Prince - are strong speed influences.

While a fascinating race to handicap, the Santa Anita Derby was the weakest renewal in its storied history. Only the winner, Tiago (Pleasant Tap), deserves a shot to go to the Derby. Tiago is bred even better to enjoy 1 1/4 miles than his half-brother Giacomo (Holy Bull), who shocked the racing world winning the 2005 Derby.

Outrunning his sprint pedigree, King of the Roxy was nothing if not game in finishing a heartbreaking second to Tiago. But his jockey, Richard Migliore, stated that while he thought King of the Roxy was going to win the race at the top of the stretch, he felt the colt abruptly weaken in deep stretch. Closing his final eighth in nearly 14 seconds at nine furlongs is not going to cut it going 1 1/4 miles against late runners with a superior kick, and that is no doubt why he's being pointed to the Preakness.

Sam P. and Liquidity, third and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, had no excuses and are not Derby material.

The final pieces of the puzzle will be filled in next weekend in the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby, and to a lesser extent, with the final Derby prep, the Lexington Stakes on April 21.