04/30/2002 11:00PM

Derby-winners spanned decimal points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Winners of the Kentucky Derby have ranged from princes of the yearling sales ring to paupers, even in the recent history of the race.

The least expensive winner of the Churchill Downs classic in modern times was Canonero in 1971, and the most costly yearling was Fusaichi Pegasus, who won two years ago. And the span of racehorses who ranged from very expensive to great bargains continues with this year's entries for the Kentucky Derby.

More than 30 years ago, Canonero, a lean and attractive bay with something less than the best forelegs, sold for only $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland September yearling sale, but the lack of appreciation for the colt in the sales ring did not stop him from sweeping away from 19 opponents to win the Derby by 3 3/4 lengths. That he paid only $19.40 to win is solely the result of Canonero's being part of the mutuel field, and only five other betting interests were at shorter odds than the field horses.

In 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus was the favorite, and the $4 million colt justified his supporters' confidence with an impressive victory. In contrast to Canonero, only the best was expected of Fusaichi Pegasus, and he delivered on the day it mattered most. He earned the winner's share of the largest Derby purse in history, nearly $1.1 million, and was sold for stud duty for about $64 million.

Among this year's runners for the Derby, Essence of Dubai leads the group by auction price, as Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin paid $2.3 million for the handsome colt at the Keeneland September sale two years ago. To put that figure into perspective, Essence of Dubai's price was only the 12th highest among the yearling colts sold in 2000. Now that he has shown what he can do on the racetrack, that hierarchy of value has changed considerably. None of them could compete with Essence of Dubai in value today.

A really pleasing colt to look at, Essence of Dubai is a good-topped colt with balance and quality. He has a fluent action and has shown encouraging stamina in his races to date. The colt's expression and mental alertness are very appealing, and he carries himself with great pride. He is, in short, a charismatic colt.

From the first crop by Claiborne stallion Pulpit, Essence of Dubai is also his sire's best racer to date. Pulpit, one of the best sons of A.P. Indy, ran in the 1997 Kentucky Derby. He battled with Free House through the first mile of the classic, leading at two calls, and finished a gallant fourth. He came out of the race with a broken bone in one knee and never raced again.

As distinguished as his sire is, Essence of Dubai has perhaps an even better known dam. She is Epitome, who was the champion 2-year-old filly of 1987, when she won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in the last stride by a nose over the talented Nijinsky filly Jeanne Jones.

Epitome was bred by Jessica Bell Nicholson and Benny Bell Williams, and the filly raced in the name of John A. Bell III, founder of Jonabell Farm.

Epitome was the best offspring of Belmont Stakes winner Summing, who stood at Jonabell, and she has been an outstanding producer, as well. From eight foals of racing age, not counting her 2-year-old, Epitome has foaled Essence of Dubai, the very talented sprint stakes winner Danjur, and Faltaat, who won a couple of important races in the United Arab Emirates and was a highweight on their annual handicap.

In addition to Essence of Dubai, other Derby contenders also sold well out of the Keeneland September sale, including Lexington Stakes winner Proud Citizen ($425,000), Wood Memorial winner Buddha ($250,000), and last year's champion juvenile colt, Johannesburg ($200,000). Today they are worth considerably more than that, and the same can be said for horses who originally sold for much less as yearlings, including the likely favorite, Harlan's Holiday, who brought $97,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky select July yearling sale. The least expensive yearling in the field is War Emblem, who brought only $20,000 at Keeneland's September sale, but the colt resold privately for 50 times that after his victory in the Illinois Derby.

Another private sale was Medaglia d'Oro, who changed hands after his maiden victory for a sum in the mid- to high-six-figure range. These sales represent the value of horses with some accomplishment and high prospects of doing better things. Both figuratively and literally, the bloom is on the rose.

One thing is certain, however. Slightly more than two minutes after the gates open for the Kentucky Derby, the values for all these colts will change, and only one will be a great deal higher.