04/29/2002 12:00AM

Even more colorful this year


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is Wednesday of Kentucky Derby Week and the horses are as trained as they can be. There is very little left to do but watch for telltale signs of happiness or distress. Trainers will start the last cold sweat now between entries and the dance, when the work of a springtime comes full circle and they become either part of history, or Derby roadkill.

There are coping mechanisms, some of them taken from real life. Canny politicians, for instance, when they seek to curry favor, will trot out either patriotism or children, depending upon which topic pops the hottest buttons.

It is to his credit, therefore, that Wayne Lukas did not affix a small child to the side of his barn, but rather hung a American flag beside a sign that proclaims the name of Proud Citizen, his Lexington Stakes winner and 39th Kentucky Derby starter. There have been references emanating from Lukas that summon the memory of Sept. 11, 2002, and how a victory by his colt might be preordained. The urge to salute is strong.

There are other messages that go beyond flag-waving. Tom Albertrani, minding the store for the Godolphin and tending to Derby runner Essence of Dubai, must live behind a sign that reads "USDA Quarantine - Authorized Personnel Only." The risk of shipping horses a long way to run was driven home cruelly this week when Godolphin's champion filly Tempera had to be euthanized after colic turned to founder.

Bob Baffert's barns are usually dressed up with all sorts of signage. Neon would never be surprising. And yet, at his usual Churchill digs, the block wall leading to the home of Baffert's Derby runner War Emblem is strangely naked. The handsome plaques displaying the names of 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm and 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet are missing. Only the bolt holes remain.

"Can you believe it?" Baffert said, his pride wounded. "They took the signs down to store them. Now they're missing.

"That," he added, "is a bad sign."

At least Baffert has a car. The list of courtesy Ford Explorers provided by Visa/Triple Crown to trainers with Derby horses was fine-tuned early in the week, and Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale was asked to turn in his keys. As of last weekend, it did not appear as if his Derby hopeful Sunday Break - a close third in a fast Wood Memorial - would make the race based on earnings. Apparently, the folks who dole out the vehicles have never heard of things like fevers, bruised feet, and last-minute defections. Entry time was still 72 hours away.

Drysdale, who hasn't won a Kentucky Derby in years (two, actually), got a good laugh from the repossession.

"Forgotten already," he said with a stage sigh. "The car came to us without gas. I considered siphoning out what I put in, but decided against it."

The prospect of a 20-horse field caused other ripples as well, not the least of which had Churchill Downs vice presidents consulting their grade school color wheels.

As a result, it is a relief to announce that the Kentucky Derby has finally broken the color barrier. The horses starting in the 2002 Derby will be adorned saddle towels of many hues, putting the race at least on a visual par with the maiden claimers at Sportsman's Park.

Still, we were robbed. The barrier was broken by decree, not democracy. The people who crank out Crayolas took an extensive poll to determine their top 50 colors (blue beat cerulean for No. 1). Even candy lovers got to help choose the new shade of M&M's (teal is cool). And yet, on the towel issue, no one asked me or any of my artistically inclined friends for advice.

The first 14 colors were pre-ordained. Beginning with red, white and blue (what else?) through lime, brown and maroon, they are in use nearly everywhere. But where else, this side of the 2000 Guineas, will there be a 20-horse field other than the Derby? The possibilities for a one-shot color statement were limitless. How about mauve, magenta, burnt sienna, puce, taupe, atomic tangerine! So what if they clash with rose? Alas, the chosen were khaki, copen blue, navy blue, forest green, denim blue and fuchsia, to be carried by Derby runners 15-20.

"Jello," replied Paco Gonzalez when asked his saddle towel color of choice, by which he of course meant yellow, because Paco's Spanish accent is clear and steady. After Came Home's work Monday morning, Gonzalez was allowing himself to dream in shades of red.

The only thing that hangs around the Gonzalez barn is Gonzalez, 24 hours a day if he could have his way. He naps in the tack room, one eye twitching in the direction of Came Home's stall. He sets the feed himself, and smiles while Came Home chews holes in the bottom of the tub like a hungry Marine.

"The most important thing to me is what a horse communicates to his trainer," said Chris McCarron, Came Home's rider. "Paco can read a horse almost like they are speaking English to him. Or Spanish. He's with them all the time, and he misses nothing."

Came Home likes the track. He has kept his weight, and his coat shines like patent leather. If he ends up wearing number four on Saturday, watch out. The Derby might have to make room for jello.