04/18/2007 12:00AM

Derby winner yet to step forward

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PHILADELPHIA - In this space two weeks ago, I moaned about the fact that not a single horse had separated from the field of Kentucky Derby contenders. I also wrote, "Expect one or more horses to blow up in this Saturday's Wood Memorial or next Saturday's Blue Grass."

The problem with the written word is that you really can't get away from it, as much as you would like to separate yourself sometimes. That's what I thought. What I think now is that I know even less than I knew then, which obviously wasn't much.

"Street Sense is the most likely candidate to get the number that will win the Derby," I wrote. "His 102 [Beyer Speed Figure] in the Tampa Bay Derby was definitive proof that the 108 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was no fluke. I would expect Street Sense to get back into the 108 range next weekend."

More brilliant thought. Street Sense got a 93 Beyer when second in the Blue Grass.

If you believe in the Beyer Figures (and I have been a believer for 30 years), you have to be bewildered two weeks prior to this Derby. If you agree that the main contenders include, in alphabetical order, Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Curlin, Great Hunter, Hard Spun, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Sam P., Scat Daddy, Street Sense, and Tiago, then you have this dilemma: those 11 horses are all in the Beyer range of 98 to 103, essentially within two lengths of each other.

No horse this year blew up in the Derby run up. Visually, Curlin was the most impressive, by far. His 103 Arkansas Derby Beyer was also the best of the bunch. I don't care about his lack of racing as a 2-year-old, the mere three starts he has had, or any of the other alleged Derby eliminators, which are being eliminated one by one anyway. I simply don't think the 103 is enough of an edge, especially when you consider Curlin likely will go off favored in the Derby.

I can't add much to the Blue Grass discussion. You saw the race. It was bizarre. And it had as much meaning as Sinister Minister's wire-to-wire romp in the same race last year, only in reverse.

For purposes of handicapping the Derby, I am going to ignore the Blue Grass. I just have no way to evaluate it. Hey, maybe I was right about Street Sense, but nobody was going to be right about anything that day on that track. And the stroll masquerading as pace ensured that it was impossible for any horse in the race to get even a decent Beyer.

I left Dominican out of my top contenders. It's not because he has no talent. The Blue Grass winner obviously has that. Like the Blue Grass itself, Dominican is confusing. He has never lost on Polytrack and never won on dirt, although he did run a respectable third to the very talented (but injured) Tiz Wonderful last year at Churchill Downs, where a certain Derby will be run on May 5.

By this time three years ago, Smarty Jones had earned a 105 Beyer as a 2-year-old and a 109 and 112 as a 3-year-old. Two years ago, Afleet Alex came back to his 102 as a 2-year-old with a 106 and 108 as a 3-year-old. There was nothing hidden about either horse before the Derby.

Last year, in the Florida Derby, Barbaro got a 103 - just like Curlin - before blowing up in the Derby itself with a 111. So, is there a horse in this bunch that is going to do a Barbaro? Frankly, even though I was certain I was going to pick him before I got to Kentucky, I had no idea Barbaro was going to do a Barbaro.

Derby Week, anybody with a set of eyes almost had to know. Barbaro looked that good on the track every morning. And if you asked confirmed truth-teller Michael Matz if he was seeing what you were seeing, he said nothing to discourage you.

By the way, Matz would like to be in this Derby with Chelokee, now firmly in graded-stakes cash limbo. Chelokee's career top Beyer is 95, but, if you've seen his races, you know he can do better. In fact, with clean trips, the colt already would have done better, putting him firmly in that 98-103 range, making my Derby 11 into a Derby Dozen, adding more intrigue to a race where it is really hard to be certain of anything.

Anybody who gets this Derby superfecta will be very smart or very lucky and definitely very wealthy.