05/18/2005 11:00PM

Different race means expect different result

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Giacomo, with Frankie Herrarte up, gallops at Pimlico on Thursday. His trainer, John Shirreffs, said "it's hard to gauge" how ready the colt is for Saturday.

NEW YORK - If someone had told you before the Kentucky Derby that Giacomo might improve three lengths off his previous form and run his final quarter-mile in 25.80 seconds, you would not have deemed such a proposition 50-1. You still would have doubted that this would be enough to win him the Derby. The shocking part of Derby 131 was not what Giacomo did, but what every other horse failed to do: run a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure or finish the race in better than 26 seconds.

The lowly 100 Beyer assigned to the Derby was not the dismissive opinion of some disgruntled critic. It is a completely fair assessment of what happens when a 10-furlong race is run in a tepid 2:02.75 over a track that was fast enough to produce times such as 1:08.03 for a second-level allowance race or 1:20.56 for a seven-furlong handicap.

The 2001 Derby keeps coming to mind. That race was run over an even faster surface and unfolded with a similarly brutal early pace: the 1:09.25 for six furlongs and 1:35 for the mile that day match up, after adjustment for the even faster track, pretty closely to this year's 1:09.59 and 1:35.88. The winner both times came from the rear of the pack, clearly benefiting from the scorching fractions that sapped those who set or chased them.

Unlike Giacomo, however, Monarchos was not timed in 2:02.75 or even 2:01.73. He ran 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.97, the second-fastest Derby ever, earning a Beyer of 116. It is not unreasonable to think he could have won this year's Derby in about 2:01 flat, by somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 10 lengths. Giacomo would have been the distant runner-up, as the late-lumbering Invisible Ink was in 2001 at Giacomoian odds.

This does not mean that Giacomo should be dragging tourists around Central Park or that anyone who finished behind him should be sent to Finger Lakes. Giacomo deserves credit for picking his way though a 20-horse field and passing everyone he had to. What it does suggest, though, is that unless you see the Preakness unfolding in the same bizarre way that the Derby did, it might pay to look for an entirely different sort of outcome this time around.

Many seem to have settled on Afleet Alex as the likeliest alternative. He is the morning-line favorite at 5-2 and sort of a strange one. Usually, when a horse who lost the Derby is favored in the Preakness, it is because people perceive that he was best that day or was unfairly denied victory. But Afleet Alex, likeable as he is for his consistency and durability, had a relatively clean trip in the Derby and was simply outfinished by Giacomo and Closing Argument.

You can say he moved a shade too soon, which is what most people said when he was outfinished by Proud Accolade in the Champagne and by Wilko in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The excuse is wearing thin, and the fact is that he is 1 for 5 in races at a mile or longer. He can win, but he might be worth playing against as the favorite.

Instead, I will try High Fly and Greeley's Galaxy. High Fly was close to the devastating pace in the Derby, made an aggressive bid to take the lead after a mile, and then faded through the lane. This time, he should be able to remain tactically well placed behind a lessfrenetic pace and wait a bit longer. Remember too that he did not race for five weeks before the Derby, an unusual gap that rarely works out well. Now he might be set for his best.

Greeley's Galaxy is more of a stab, but at 15-1 he's worth a look. Usually a stalker, he broke poorly in the Derby and was 16th early. He made a sustained sweeping move to get within four lengths of the lead after a mile, then came up empty and was not ridden out late. His Illinois Derby two starts back was a strong enough effort to win this, and he will be enough of a price to gamble that he might run back to that effort here.

Closing Argument is worth consideration as well. It can be reasonably argued that he ran the bravest race of any of the first three Derby finishers, as he was the only one of them close to the early pace but still fighting on through the stretch, turning back Afleet Alex before surrendering to the fresher Giacomo.

If Giacomo does not win the Preakness, it will be the first time in four years that there has not been a Triple Crown bid on the line. While such a scenario will disappoint some fans, it has its virtues. The last two years, the race for the 3-year-old championship was essentially over by May 15. It might be fun for a change to watch things play out for an entire season, especially once Bellamy Road and Declan's Moon rejoin the party.