04/03/2006 12:00AM

Derby wins elusive off five-week layoff


NEW YORK - By virtue of his determined victory in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, and with a perfect record of five victories from as many starts, Barbaro will, barring the unforeseen, go into the Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs as one of the most popular betting choices. That will be the case even though Barbaro will be attempting to do something that has not been done in 50 years - win the Derby despite not having raced in five or more weeks.

One might think that 50 years of Kentucky Derby history would dissuade bettors from getting behind a horse like Barbaro. One might also think that with so much data seemingly against it, horsemen would avoid bringing a prospect into the Derby off such a period of inactivity.

Yet in the case of Barbaro, this schedule is intentional. And already, it is easy to sense that a growing number of racing people support the concept of bringing a horse to Louisville off a longer gap between starts than what has worked for the last half-century.

These folks argue that the game has changed radically in the last 50 years, that horses, especially good horses, make far fewer starts now. This, of course, is beyond dispute. They also argue that the Thoroughbred today has a better chance to produce a top performance when he is fresh than he does when regularly raced. This might be true, but it is an idea that is more open to interpretation and individual circumstances.

The thing to remember is that however different the game is now than it was 50 years ago, this evolution - some might insist devolution - didn't happen overnight. These changes came gradually. So if there is reason to believe that a horse such as Barbaro has a better chance now to win the Kentucky Derby having not raced within five weeks of the big day than he would have 20 or 30 years ago, then there must be some indications of it in recent history.

In the last 10 Kentucky Derbies, there have been 19 starters who attempted to win after layoffs of five weeks or more. Here's a breakdown of how they fared:

* In 1996, Victory Speech went into the Derby off a five-week layoff after finishing third in the race we now know as the Lane's End, and ran a tired 10th as part of an entry that went off at 24-1.

* In 1997, Jack Flash also went into the Derby having not raced in five weeks after a second in the race now called the Lane's End and finished seventh as part of an entry that was 20-1.

* In 1998, Rock and Roll hadn't raced since a third in the Tampa Bay Derby five weeks earlier, and was a tired 14th at 50-1.

* In 1999, four horses tried to win the Derby off inactivity of five weeks or more. Worldly Manner hadn't had an official race since he had won the Del Mar Futurity eight months earlier. He ran very well considering but was still a tired seventh at 14-1. K One King hadn't raced in five weeks, since his second in the race now known as the Lane's End, and was eighth as part of the mutuel field at 11-1. Stephen Got Even was the 5-1 second choice in the betting off his win in the race that is now the Lane's End but was a tired 14th. And the filly Three Ring was a tired 19th and last at 25-1 in her first start since winning the Bonnie Miss 6 1/2 weeks earlier.

* In 2000, the Godolphin entry of China Visit and Curule finished sixth and seventh at 23-1 after winning, and finishing third, respectively, in the UAE Derby six weeks earlier.

* In 2001, Express Tour hadn't raced since winning the UAE Derby six weeks earlier, and finished eighth at 18-1.

* In 2002, Perfect Drift, Request for Parole, and Essence of Dubai all ran off a five-week layoff. Perfect Drift and Request for Parole, who had finished first and third in the Lane's End, finished a tired third and fifth in the Derby at respective odds of 7-1 and 29-1. Essence of Dubai, who had won the UAE Derby, was a tired ninth at 10-1.

* In 2003, Outta Here finished seventh at 39-1 after finishing fourth in the UAE Derby five weeks earlier.

* In 2004, Read the Footnotes hadn't raced in seven weeks, since a fourth in the Florida Derby, and was a tired seventh at 22-1. Birdstone, whose previous start was a fifth in the Lane's End six weeks earlier, was eighth at 21-1. And Friends Lake, who hadn't raced since he won the Florida Derby, finished 15th at 18-1.

* In 2005, High Fly and Noble Causeway finished one-two in the Florida Derby five weeks before the Derby. But in Kentucky, High Fly was a tired 10th at 7-1, the fourth betting choice of 20, and Noble Causeway finished 14th as the fifth betting choice at 12-1.

To recap, the best finish of these 19 horses was Perfect Drift's third, and the average finish was ninth.

Eventually, a horse will win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five weeks or longer. Then again, eventually 75 percent of the Derby field may comprise horses that haven't raced in five weeks or more. But until then, there isn't a lot of incentive to go against this bit of Derby history.