03/22/2004 12:00AM

Each Derby prep brings new puzzle

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NEW YORK - There is still time for things to sort themselves out. The Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby on April 3 and the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby on April 10 could well bring order to the Kentucky Derby picture. But the way things have been going, don't bet on it.

It has been many, many years since a Kentucky Derby picture has been in such a state of disarray at this point in the season. In a sense, it was entirely fitting that Brass Hat won the Rushaway Stakes on Saturday at Turfway Park, because he is emblematic of the current up-is-down, down-is-up condition of the 3-year-old division. Brass Hat was a maiden who couldn't even win - and was dismissed at 32-1 - against $15,000 maiden claimers at Turfway. But he won the Rushaway in decisive fashion at 38-1, which was about one-tenth of the price he could have been.

Then, 18 minutes later, one of the better fields for Aqueduct's Gotham Stakes in recent years was turned on its head by Saratoga County - not an implausible result. Saratoga County's brutally unlucky third in Gulfstream's Hutcheson Stakes in his prior start had to be seen to be fully appreciated. In the context of the Kentucky Derby, however, this result was not helpful. Even after Saratoga County's daylight score in the Gotham, his trainer, George Weaver, reiterated that the colt was not a Derby horse, primarily because of his sprint pedigree.

Twenty minutes after that, Sinister G engineered a 16-1 upset of the day's biggest Derby prep, the Lane's End at Turfway, thanks to an excellent ride from Paul Toscano. He did a great job working his mount in from the 11 hole to have him in the path of his choosing. Putting aside the fact that Sinister G is also bred a little short, and that his nickname is Jekyll and Hyde because he is just as capable of being beaten the length of the stretch as he is of running well, Sinister G's victory only added to the confusion for one simple reason: As of this moment, Sinister G is not nominated to the Kentucky Derby.

Finally, a little less than three hours later, Smarty Jones turned in the strongest performance of the day on a couple of different levels by winning the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park to stretch his undefeated streak to five. Smarty Jones was impressive visually, dominating the previously undefeated Purge and stringing the rest of his opponents out at the wire. He was also impressive against the clock, as his solid Beyer Speed Figure of 106 was 10 points better than Saratoga County's Gotham, 12 points better than Sinister G's Lane's End, and, for the purposes of being thorough, 16 points better than what the mighty Brass Hat earned. Still, as strong as Smarty Jones was Saturday, there is a big difference between the 1 1/16 miles of the Rebel and the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby. A strong feeling remains that his miler's pedigree will not allow him to bridge that gap.

As for the two premier Kentucky Derby candidates who performed and lost on Saturday, one deserves another chance, while the merits of the other must be reassessed.

The horse who has to be viewed with skepticism is Birdstone, who was a distant fifth in the Lane's End at 3-5. Perhaps the sealing of the track before the race compromised him, although the 10 others who ran all had to compete on the same surface. Maybe being on the rail for the last three-eighths of a mile hurt as well, because the rail may not have been the place to be. Still, Birdstone never moved so much as a muscle and was beaten almost 11 lengths. Birdstone surely can't go to the Derby off a non-effort like that. But, if he runs back in one of the April 10 preps, that means he will be coming back in three weeks, and then again in three more weeks in the Derby. Birdstone is a small colt and may not be able to stand up to that kind of schedule.

The one who deserves another chance is Eddington, who finished third in the Gotham, beaten three lengths at 6-5. Eddington didn't finish with the kind of verve you would want, and it wasn't encouraging to see him on the wrong lead through much of the stretch. He did get slammed hard coming out of the gate, however, and the possibility exists that Eddington is more effective around two turns rather than at the one-turn mile of the Gotham. Moreover, weather was a factor. A strong tailwind pushed the field through screaming fractions of 21.88 seconds and 43.67 down the backstretch, then became a powerful headwind through the stretch, making it difficult for closers to gain ground and making pace analysis impossible.