04/20/2006 12:00AM

Either Like Now, or bombs away!


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If you think the Kentucky Derby picture is already confusing, prepare to be confused even more. Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, the last legitimate prep for the Derby, is littered with questions.

- Can Like Now, who won the Gotham wire-to-wire, rate effectively? Or can he beat stretch-out sprinter Fast Parade to the lead and win setting a demanding pace?

- Can the unbeaten Showing Up, who has made just two prior starts, overcome inexperience to win a graded stakes race in his first such attempt?

- And can Greeley's Legacy, a good fourth in the Gotham, rebound from seventh-place finish in a Wood Memorial that was run in the slop?

There are no clear answers to those questions. The race is a puzzler, likely creating value on most runners with the exception of Showing Up, the probable favorite.

My top choice is Like Now, who admittedly faces what looks like a brutal pace test against Fast Parade - on paper, anyway. But I also know that races don't always unfold as they appear on paper, particularly in big stakes races. Trainers and jockeys can read past performances - and more so than in everyday races, they seem to strategize more - causing big races sometimes to develop differently than you might anticipate.

My rationale for supporting Like Now is simple: I loved his Gotham victory. Facing a top-notch field - one that surpassed the Wood, in my opinion - he took command from the outset and outlasted some very good horses in Keyed Entry and Sweetnorthernsaint, two likely Kentucky Derby starters. He ran quickly, too, posting a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

Whether he can run that well in a race like the Lexington, which appears inundated with speed, remains to be seen. But my guess is that he will be a decent price simply because many players will anticipate him getting cooked in a speed duel.

As for Showing Up, he is no doubt a talented prospect. The problem with him is inexperience. Having made just two starts, and none in stakes or around two turns, he is at a distinct disadvantage against his more experienced counterparts.

Consider this - in checking the past performances of the Lexington since 1992, I couldn't find one horse that even tried this race after making only two prior starts. Seven horses raced in the Lexington over that stretch after racing just three times previously, and the best finish by any of them was a third-place finish by Deeds Not Words in 1997.

Deeds Not Words was a different case than Showing Up in that Deeds Not Words had already raced in a stakes. He had been fourth in the Gotham and third in the Best Pal Stakes. Showing Up isn't as battle-tested, no matter how tough the first-level allowance he won at Gulfstream on March 11.

So what happens if Like Now gets used up in the pace, and Showing Up doesn't show up in his first stakes start? Then we could be looking at a longshot winner.

Greeley's Legacy is interesting on the basis of his fourth in the Gotham, and if the main track on Saturday dries out after storms expected through Thursday and into Friday, he might catch a track that agrees with him. The slop appeared to compromise him last time when seventh in the Wood.

A live longshot in the Lexington is More Than Regal, who was carried out into the first turn of the Lane's End, costing him ground and positioning. A midpack stalker, he found himself trying to rally from 10th - and simply didn't have the kick to make up that kind of ground. He ran well to be fourth.

Well drawn in the three post, he ought to get a good stalking trip in midpack under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who has already booted home numerous longshot winners at Keeneland this meet.

Another live longshot

Another favorable betting opportunity occurs in race 7 on the Keeneland card, the Giant's Causeway at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf for fillies and mares.

Unbridled Sidney will take heavy action, despite having run last of seven in the Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn March 4. Granted, that race was a comeback race on dirt, not her preferred surface, but I still would have liked to have seen something more from her.

My selection is Bright Gold, who won a dirt allowance at Laurel March 15 in her first start of 2006. Last year she won 5 of 6 starts in grass sprints, including one over the Keeneland surface.