04/21/2004 12:00AM

Don't play this Derby - attack it!


PHILADELPHIA - There are so many ways to look at this Kentucky Derby and so few ways to get it right. The Beyer Speed Figures pointed the way to big prices the last several years, but even most of us who swear by the figs were far too sophisticated to take such an obvious approach as backing the fastest horse. Really, who needs Charismatic ($64.60), War Emblem ($43), or the Beyer exacta of 12-1 Funny Cide over Empire Maker?

One-figure horses just weren't enough to convince us. We needed to analyze. Why go the easy way? Who needs money anyway?

The obvious exacta this year is The Cliff's Edge over Lion Heart. The Blue Grass Stakes produced the best Beyer of the spring. They ran one-two in the Blue Grass. If the last few years tell us anything, that is the Derby exacta.

The sad truth about horse racing is that as soon as a trend becomes clear, it disappears. Just when it looks easy, it turns out to be an illusion. A man said years ago that if you are looking for easy money at the racetrack, you have come to the wrong place. If it is true in general, it is true 20-fold in the Derby.

Mix in 20 horses, 20 riders, 150,000 spectators onsite, weeks of preparation, and two minutes, and you have the ingredients for madness and a payoff that can change your life.

My advice is simple. Find a scenario or a horse or a trainer that you like and create a bet around it that is part science, part art, and a whole lot of risk. The Derby is no time to be in the show pool. Or even the win pool. This is one of those races that demand imagination and swagger.

At this moment, I am leaning toward the mid-Atlantic key. When you don't know that much (and anybody who tells you they "know" what is going to happen in this Derby is a fool, sucker, or both), go with what you do know.

If you've watched Smarty Jones since the start as I have, you really don't need any more convincing that he is legit. Any horse that can run a 105 Beyer in his second lifetime start has major ability. And when a horse does that only 13 days after an overwhelming debut, it is telling you something.

The winning Derby Beyer is expected to be around a 110. Smarty Jones has been close to that number in half his lifetime starts. There is not another horse in the field that can make that claim.

The knockers are out there. And that's fine. Smarty Jones can't win because of his rider, Stewart Elliott, and his trainer, John Servis, two Derby neophytes. He can't win because he's a Pennsylvania-bred. Smarty's sire, Elusive Quality, can't get a classic horse. His mother, I'll Get Along, was a nice horse on the minor mid-Atlantic circuit. The jockey, trainer, and owners - Pat and Roy Chapman - all live in Bucks County, Pa., which, according to the map, is not near Lexington. You know the drill.

Tell it to Barclay Tagg and Funny Cide, the Derby neophyte trainer and the New York-bred gelding who won the roses last year.

Nothing is forever. Sometimes all that matters is if you have the fastest horse.

Tapit is the other half of the mid-Atlantic exacta. This is strictly a faith play. When trainer Michael Dickinson was convinced Da Hoss was going to win the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile, I did not bother with the past performances. I just went to the windows.

I have heard no such pronouncements about Tapit in this strange spring. However, I will be listening closely next week in Louisville.

Tapit has no lofty figs, but it would be fair to say the Wood Memorial was not the easiest fig to make, given the available data. If you believe in the pedigree, the trainer, and what you see on the track, Tapit must be taken seriously.

There are few trainers that bettors will back blindly. Dickinson is one of them. I will have my eyes and, more importantly, my ears wide open in the coming days.

So there you have it. I will be constructing some kind of bet (almost certainly a superfecta) around Smarty Jones and Tapit. Unless I change my mind.