04/25/2004 11:00PM

Derby winner could break all the rules

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NEW YORK - There are numerous handicapping philosophies that can be applied to Saturday's wacky and wide-open Kentucky Derby. One is that all the rules that go into Kentucky Derby handicapping should go right out the window, considering how the run-up to this Derby has been more unsettled than any other in recent memory. Another is the exact opposite: Since this Derby borders on the inscrutable, all the parameters that combine to define the genuine Derby contenders become more important than ever.

With that in mind, this is a good time to look at some of the handicapping guidelines of the Kentucky Derby, and see how they may narrow the contenders, including those who are still hoping to break into the starting field.

Two of the most well known, and perhaps most important, qualifiers in Derby handicapping are that the horse in question had to have raced as a 2-year-old, and had to have run in at least three prep races at age 3. It is not just a statistical aberration that the last Derby winner who did not race at 2 was Apollo back in 1882, because the Derby places an enormous premium on conditioning, the deeper the foundation the better. The Derby also places great importance on seasoning, which is why the last horse to win the Derby off fewer than three preps at 3 was Sunny's Halo in 1983 - and, he was the first to do so since Jet Pilot in 1947.

When these qualifiers are applied to this year's Derby, you can eliminate 40 percent of the field. Rock Hard Ten and Song of the Sword did not race at 2, while Lion Heart, Tapit, Read the Footnotes, Castledale, Birdstone, and Friends Lake all have only two races this year going into Saturday.

Continuing in the seasoning theme, five of those mentioned above will also be trying to buck other long-standing Derby trends. Tapit has raced only four times, and the last horse to win the Derby with so few career starts was Exterminator in 1918. That's okay. Rock Hard Ten has raced only three times. Regret, the first filly to win the Derby, was the last to win this event after as few career starts, and she did so in 1915. Meanwhile, Read the Footnotes, Birdstone, and Friends Lake will all be attempting to do something that hasn't been accomplished since Needles in 1956, which is to win the Derby off a last start in March.

There are also some pretty solid performance guidelines the successful candidate for the Derby should meet. For example, Borrego, Minister Eric, Song of the Sword, Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, and Value Plus are all trying to make the Derby their first career stakes victory. History says they should have gotten that accomplished earlier. Alysheba, in 1987, was the last to make the Derby his first stakes win, although it should be noted he was disqualified from first in the Blue Grass. Before him, you have to go back to Canonero II in 1971. Who knows what kind of races Canonero II was winning in Venezuela, but they probably weren't quality stakes.

Even more related to performance, Derby winners almost always have raced at least respectably in their last start. The last horse to win the Derby who finished worse than a decent fourth in his start before the Derby was Iron Liege in 1957. Wimbledon, St Averil, Birdstone, Action This Day, and Value Plus all finished worse than a decent fourth in their last start.

Finally, a more current guideline for Derby horses is the triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure qualifier. Sea Hero, in 1993, is the only Derby winner since 1992 who hadn't earned a Beyer Figure of 100 or better before the Derby. Tapit, Birdstone, Friends Lake, and Action This Day all have yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure.

So, who does this leave us with? The eight Derby candidates who qualified on all counts listed above are The Cliff's Edge, Smarty Jones, Master David, Quintons Gold Rush, Imperialism, Pollard's Vision, Limehouse, and Pro Prado. Does this mean my Derby pick will come from this group? Perhaps not. I think Pollard's Vision, Limehouse, and Pro Prado just aren't good enough, and I suspect Smarty Jones and Imperialism have distance limitations. The Cliff's Edge and Master David are obvious, and Quintons Gold Rush is something of a revelation to have passed all these tests, and I will now throw him in, especially since his price should be nice.

But, there is a giant wild card in this Derby, and that is Michael Dickinson, trainer of Tapit. Tapit has yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer Figure, he has but two preps this year, and has started only four times in his life. On the other hand, Dickinson gave Tapit a work in company last week at his undulating Tapeta Farm that seemed like a race in every way, shape, and form. Moreover, Tapit Beyered 98 as a 2-year-old, and earned the same number winning the Wood Memorial while far from extended, all of which suggests that he can easily enter triple-digit Beyer territory. Factor in Dickinson's amazing work with Da Hoss and A Huevo, just to mention two examples, and the strong feeling is Tapit and Dickinson are a duo that can break a bunch of Derby rules.

Now all they have to do is carry me.