04/30/2007 11:00PM

Derby 'rules' were made to be broken

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - It was just last month that a popular story in sports sections of newspapers around the country concerned the challenge facing a collegiate basketball team attempting to repeat as NCAA tournament champion. No team since Duke in 1992 had won back-to-back titles, and therefore, the thinking went, 2006 champion Florida was viewed as vulnerable in this year's tournament.

Then Florida proceeded to coast to its second straight NCAA title.

A similar occurrence might happen this year with the Kentucky Derby. Over the next week one of the primary topics of conversation will be the fact that Curlin will be attempting to buck history by attempting to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without making a start at age 2.

From my perspective, to dismiss Curlin strictly for that reason would be a mistake, just as it was for some basketball analysts to underestimate Florida in this year's tournament. Yes, inexperienced horses have a poor track record in the Derby, even more so than basketball teams seeking to repeat, but the racing landscape has changed, just as it has in college basketball.

Florida defied the odds for a simple reason. Talent. The Gators returned their entire starting five, including several players who are deemed legitimate NBA prospects.

Curlin also holds an edge in talent over the opposition. He has won all three of his starts in a gallop, he owns some of the strongest speed figures in the race, and he has a versatile running style that should allow his jockey, Robby Albarado, to secure a favorable running position.

He is inexperienced - having made just three starts - but he performed like a skilled veteran in winning the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. He flashed speed to sit second early, waited patiently in a stalking position when another rival passed him on the backstretch, and then picked off the leaders and came into the stretch with his ears pricked.

Once Albarado turned him loose in the stretch, the race soon was over. The colt's final eighth in 11.91 seconds led to a commanding 10 1/2- length margin of victory.

Admittedly, there were few stars facing Curlin in the Arkansas Derby. He faces a deeper and classier field in the Derby. They all do.

No horse in the Derby has faced a field of this depth and quality, not even Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense. He has raced against the best competition, but never against so many top colts.

If Curlin loses the Kentucky Derby, I am sure many people will attribute his defeat to the rule that no unraced 2-year-old can win the race. But my guess is that if he loses, it is merely because some other colt ran faster.

The Derby should be handicapped like any other race. Horses should be considered on the basis of class, speed, pace, workouts, connections, etc. - not on statistical "rules" that the media overemphasizes.

Yet every year horseplayers end up handicapping these races by the stories they read and the television programs they watch, instead of basing their selections on what is truly important - the past performances.

It seems that every few years, one of these "rules" is broken, anyway.

Barbaro broke the "layoff" rule last year, winning the Derby despite coming into the race with five weeks of rest since his prior race. In doing so, he became the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win after having more than four weeks off.

Then there was "gelding" rule-breaker Funny Cide, who triumphed in the 2003 Derby, becoming the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

My strategy for this year is to forget all these "rules" - be it one that concerns unraced 2-year-olds, time between races, or how many preps the horse has had this year.

What matters most is getting a fair price on a horse you like. If Curlin is 9-2 odds or higher in the Derby - a possibility in light of the talk that will come regarding his inexperience - he would offer just that.