05/09/2002 11:00PM

Derby teaches several lessons

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - I've spent the last week pondering the results of the Kentucky Derby. Up until now I have successfully resisted the urge to believe that any significant handicapping lessons were either proven or disproven by any single running of the race. But I believe that this year's outcome was much more instructive than most.

I had a reasonable handle on the race going in. After the scratch of Buddha, my top choice was Medaglia d'Oro, who finished a respectable fourth. Second pick Perfect Drift finished third. And War Emblem, my third choice, won. If not for the second-place finish of Proud Citizen I would have made a nice score. As it turned out, I won enough on War Emblem to cover the exotic and future wagers that did not come through for me. No big victory, no big loss. But the results of the race did reinforce a few lessons I already knew, and will help me to better prioritize my handicapping thought process next year.

The main lesson of this year's Derby is that horses with perfect trips should run fast in those races. Makes sense, doesn't it? War Emblem's 112 Beyer for his Illinois Derby win was earned with help from an unchallenged lead through slow fractions over a speed-favoring track. It was clearly an ideal trip. But it is significant that War Emblem made good use of it while earning a big number, with speed to spare.

Compare him with Harlan's Holiday, who also enjoyed perfect trips while closing into slow come-home times in the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass. Where was his 112 Beyer? He settled for a 101 and a 98 in those races. Despite his consistency, and the class of the races he won or finished second in, he had shown signs of weakness, and was an underlay at 6-1.

The second lesson is a bit of a stretch. I really did not like Proud Citizen at all. In fact, I'm so surprised that he finished second, I'm tempted to still leave him out of my exacta tickets every time I watch the replay of the race. Nevertheless, regardless of how unlikely they seem, it should be recalled that horses trained by D. Wayne Lukas don't peak until Derby Day, and may not show any discernible signs of life until their final Derby prep, so their form before the race is misleading. Consider throwing them into the exotics.

The third lesson is that the Spiral was a much better Derby prep than most bettors probably realize.

Perfect Drift, who won that race, finished third in the Derby. And Request for Parole, who finished third, beaten by only a neck at Turfway, checked in a solid fifth as a 29-1 longshot. Don't discount horses who earned competitive numbers in that race.

The rest of the lessons of the 128th Derby are strictly common sense. Be wary of any horse who, like Saarland, has undergone any medical procedure that ends with the suffix "ectomy" within a couple of months of the Derby. The most likely result is a large cash-ectomy from your betting bankroll.

Any horse with steadily descending Beyers as the distances of his races increase, and with slow come-home times, like Came Home, is a bad bet as he stretches out to 1 1/4 miles, especially at only 8-1.

And one sub-par prep race is insufficient preparation for the Kentucky Derby second time out as a 3-year-old, especially at the 8-1 price offered by Johannesburg.

It all seems so clear now. I can't wait until next year.