05/02/2002 11:00PM

Don't overlook Private Emblem

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The 128th running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday is a handicapper's dream with an evenly-matched field of 19 horses competing as 19 different betting interests in America's greatest race.

This year's Derby field is so wide-open that the morning-line favorite, Harlan's Holiday, is listed at 9-2. Even with the scratch of Buddha on Friday morning, Harlan's Holiday still should go off at no less than 4-1 and is just one of about a dozen or so horses with a legitimate chance to win the race. In this sort of a field, all you have to do is hit an exacta - any exacta - in order to receive a high mutuel payout and turn a tidy profit in the process.

A horse with a great shot to win who will be overlooked by many people is Private Emblem, the winner of the Arkansas Derby. Private Emblem could go off at odds upward of 15-1 despite having won one of the Derby's major prep races and earning a Beyer figure of 100 in his last start. A career-high Beyer of 100 would not be enough to earn a horse Kentucky Derby consideration most years, but this isn't most years. Private Emblem's 100 Beyer compares similarly or favorably to the rest of this field, and there's reason to believe he will only get better on Saturday.

Private Emblem should be ready for a new career-best effort in the Derby which will be his third race off of a layoff. Also, the 1 1/4-mile distance should not pose a problem based on the strong late kick Private Emblem showed in the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby which he won by over four lengths.

Private Emblem has some tactical speed and should be rating just behind the pace which is exactly the type of running style you want in order to win the Kentucky Derby. Private Emblem is the horse to beat.

Before you go any further handicapping the Derby, you must decide what you want to do with Harlan's Holiday. He certainly has a chance to win, but there's no reason to take a short-priced horse in this race, especially one like Harlan's Holiday who exits a slow Blue Grass Stakes win where he ran 1 1/8 miles in a slow 1:51.2 and earned a low 98 Beyer. Harlan's Holiday ran three straight big efforts in Florida this winter and seems to be past the peak of his form cycle based on his last race.

Instead of Harlan's Holiday, why not take better-priced horses with a lot of upside like Perfect Drift, Medaglia d'Oro, and Castle Gandolfo to fill-out your exactas, trifectas, and superfectas.

Perfect Drift has not raced since winning the Spiral Stakes six weeks ago, but looked good enough in that race be considered one of the Kentucky Derby's top contenders. Perfect Drift closed from off the pace on a speed-favoring Turfway Park track to win the Spiral, and earned a 103 Beyer which is among the best speed figures of any horse in the Derby. Perfect Drift has a good turn-of-foot, should get the distance, and will be perfectly-placed from a running-style standpoint somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Medaglia d'Oro has been fantastic in his last three races including a win (107 Beyer) in the San Felipe at Santa Anita two races back, and a narrow loss to Buddha in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct (104 Beyer) in his last start. Medaglia d'Oro is trained by Eclipse Award-winning trainer Bobby Frankel, and will be easy to cheer for with jockey Laffit Pincay aboard for the ride.

Finally, don't count out Castle Gandolfo, the lesser-known Coolmore entrant in the race behind stablemate Johannesburg. Castle Gandolfo ran a good second at 1 1/4-miles as a 2-year-old, and had a dirt prep for the Derby in Ireland in his last start. One of the horses who Castle Gandolfo beat in his prep race, Dupont, came back to win his next start in the Italian 2000 Guineas, indicating that the field that Castle Gandolfo beat may have contained some quality runners.

Also, don't overlook the fact that Castle Gandolfo will be adding first-time Lasix for this race, and that Jerry Bailey will be aboard this horse, and not Johannesburg.

SELECTIONS:

KENTUCKY DERBY

Churchill Downs, Saturday - Race 9

Grade 2, 1 1/16 miles, purse: $325,000

1) 11-Private Emblem

2) 3-Perfect Drift

3) 9-Medaglia d'Oro

4) 12-Castle Gandolfo


$100 PLAY

Play 11-Private Emblem to win and then mix him up in exactas and trifectas with to win and try to bump up your payoffs by hooking him up in the exactas with 3-Perfect Drift, 9-Medaglia d'Oro, and 12-Castle Gandolfo.

$4 four-horse exacta box: 3-Perfect Drift, 9-Medaglia d'Oro, 11-Private Emblem and 12-Castle Gandolfo ($48 bet)

$1 four-horse trifecta box: 3-Perfect Drift, 9-Medaglia d'Oro, 11-Private Emblem and 12-Castle Gandolfo ($24 bet)

$28 to win on 11-Private Emblem