03/23/2009 12:00AM

Derby winner somewhere among fabulous five


NEW YORK - Last weekend marked an important milepost on the long road to the Kentucky Derby, and no, I'm not talking about Saturday's Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. With the Lane's End now behind us, we have, for all intents and purposes, entered final Derby prep territory.

Oh, I suppose a horse who runs in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park could come back three weeks after that and run in the Lexington. But that would mean that horse would have only two weeks from there to the Derby. It's hard envisioning a serious horse being subjected to a schedule like that for any other reason than very grave concerns over his position on the graded stakes earnings list.

So in thinking about how the last round of Kentucky Derby preps is suddenly here, I had a surprising realization. While I acknowledge that what happens in the last group of Derby preps might have a major impact on the Kentucky Derby picture, things to me look crystal clear. Maybe the long winter made me delusional, but right now, I see this Derby being won by one of only five horses.

Old Fashioned and Pioneerof the Nile are not among them. Old Fashioned's fast early, slow late performances in both of his starts this year make me think that the only time he will be able to get two turns in a meaningful situation for the foreseeable future are when he's allowed to walk though slow fractions on an uncontested lead, like when he won the Remsen last fall. That's an unlikely Kentucky Derby scenario.

Pioneerof the Nile right now is just simply too slow. And Hold Me Back, who ran well winning the Lane's End in his first start of the year, and who has a license to improve, might now be a boast-worthy 3 for 3 on synthetics. But the Derby is on dirt, and in his one start on dirt, Hold Me Back was so far behind Old Fashioned in the Remsen you needed a telescope to find him.

No, my fantastic five are, in order of their scheduled next starts: Dunkirk and Quality Road, who are to meet in this weekend's highly anticipated renewal of the Florida Derby; I Want Revenge, who is pointing to the Wood Memorial on April 4; The Pamplemousse, who is to run the same day in the Santa Anita Derby; and Friesan Fire, who, if he is to start at all before the Derby, will do so in the Blue Grass on April 11.

* Dunkirk: Was truly sensational winning both of his career starts at Gulfstream, especially his romp in a loaded nine-furlong allowance race last time out. He was caught so wide on the first turn (he was also wide on the far turn) that he might have run a sixteenth of a mile farther than anyone else, and he still won by nearly five. Dunkirk doesn't have a cent in graded earnings, so the Florida Derby is critical to him. He also would be attempting to become the first since Apollo 127 years ago to win the Derby without having raced at 2. But as Big Brown demonstrated last year, talent trumps experience in today's Kentucky Derby, and Dunkirk has tons of talent.

* Quality Road: Showed everyone in the Fountain of Youth why so many raved about his brilliant career debut late last November. In his first start with Lasix, he dominated the Fountain of Youth, and ran fast enough to earn an imposing Beyer Figure of 113. He has $150,000 in graded stakes earnings, which makes him a bubble horse, and means the Florida Derby is very important to him, too. Also, Quality Road has a miler's pedigree on top, but that didn't stop Big Brown, or Smarty Jones in 2004.

* I Want Revenge: Turned in an awesome performance taking the Gotham most recently, winning by the length of the stretch and earning a 113 Beyer that in my view is slightly better than Quality Road's 113 because I Want Revenge's came around two turns. Most importantly, I Want Revenge demonstrated a decided affinity for dirt, not surprising considering his dirt-oriented pedigree. This means that it might be best not to put too much stock in his prior synthetic track form as synthetic surfaces probably prevented him from performing up to his true abilities. I Want Revenge has no worries when it comes to graded earnings. He's safely in with $324,000. Instead, some feel that the main concern is the one he shares with Quality Road: Does that 113 Beyer suggest he has peaked too soon? I don't think so. I think he's just that good.

* The Pamplemousse: He's 3 for 3 since being stretched out to two turns, the last two of which were stakes. And his runaway, six-length score most recently in the nine-furlong Sham, coming after (and despite) setting a strong early pace, good for a Beyer of 103, proved that you can win big and earn a relatively high fig on a synthetic track. He has $180,000 in graded stakes earnings, so it would be in his best interests to pick up a chunk more in the Santa Anita Derby. The main knock on The Pamplemousse seems to be that he has a sprinter's pedigree. He does, but the fact is, he hasn't stepped on it yet. Moreover, like I Want Revenge, The Pamplemousse has a pedigree decidedly leaning toward dirt. So as good as he's been running long on synthetic, he might be even better when he finally does get on dirt in the Derby.

* Friesan Fire: With three graded two-turn stakes wins this year, he has accomplished more up to this point this year than any of his contemporaries. The main issue with Friesan Fire was not one of pedigree; he's by A.P. Indy. It was one of style. He hadn't been winning all that impressively. But even when he took steps to address that by winning the Louisiana Derby last time out by more than seven lengths, a sloppy track made it difficult to take the outcome completely at face value. Still, Friesan Fire has improved from race to race, and with graded earnings of $570,465, he has the luxury to treat the Blue Grass as a real prep, if he runs in it at all.