04/28/2004 11:00PM

Everything you want in a winner

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WASHINGTON - When the final round of Kentucky Derby prep races was contested April 10, no 3-year-old had yet emerged as the leader of his generation. Racing fans watched intently for clues to the identity of the eventual Derby winner.

Tapit was a powerhouse as he rallied from last place to capture the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. Visually, his performance was as impressive as any by a 3-year-old this season. Smarty Jones battled for the lead and won the Arkansas Derby authoritatively, improving his career record to a perfect 6 for 6. The Cliff's Edge rallied to catch the tired speedster Lion Heart in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, scoring a narrow victory that didn't appear exceptional.

Yet the speed figures for the three races produced assessments of the winners that were different from most people's immediate reactions. Tapit won the Wood with a mediocre Beyer Speed Figure of 98. Smarty Jones's figure was a respectable 107 while The Cliff's Edge earned a rating of 111 - an outstanding performance good enough to win the Derby in an average year. Should a handicapper trust his senses or trust the numbers?

Although I am a champion of speed figures, I recognize that the Kentucky Derby can't be deciphered in a simplistic fashion. A horse's overall preparation, his pedigree, and his running style all can be as important as his speed. That's why I have often outsmarted myself at the Derby. When War Emblem came into the 2002 Derby with a standout speed figure and won at 20-1, I didn't have him. When Charismatic had the co-top figure in 1999, I ignored him at 31-1.

I'm not making this mistake again. I'm not overlooking The Cliff's Edge. Not only did he run the fastest recent prep race, but he has a near-perfect profile for a Derby winner.

The 130th running of the Derby is widely perceived as one of the most wide-open in years, but amid the 20 entrants there are five who appear to have superior talent. Besides The Cliff's Edge, they are Lion Heart, Smarty Jones, Tapit, and Read the Footnotes. Any of them could turn out to be the star of his generation. But Lion Heart, Smarty Jones, Tapit, and Read the Footnotes each has a serious defect in his Derby credentials.

* Lion Heart is a consistent, gritty and fast. He has led or fought for the lead in every one of his races; even when he is subjected to pressure at a fast pace, he doesn't give up. His speed figure of 110 in the Blue Grass confirms that he has abundant raw talent. But he appears to be a one-dimensional speed horse with stamina limitations, and those traits will compromise him Saturday. If Lion Heart couldn't hold a 2 1/2-length lead in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, how is he going to win at 1 1/4 miles?

* Smarty Jones will attempt to become the first undefeated colt to win the Derby since Seattle Slew; if he does, handicappers will be asking themselves why they didn't take 5-1 (or thereabout) on such a fast, versatile, professional racehorse. But as he dominated his rivals in Arkansas this winter, Smarty Jones wasn't facing opposition of much quality. On Saturday he will probably have to chase Lion Heart - who is a quicker horse - overhaul him, and then hold off stretch-runners such as The Cliff's Edge. His pedigree suggests that he'll have trouble doing it. Smarty Jones is the son of a sprinter, Elusive Quality, and he doesn't inherit much stamina from his dam, either; such horses may look good at 1 1/8 miles, but they rarely succeed at the Derby distance.

* Tapit looked like a Kentucky Derby candidate when he finished powerfully to win the Laurel Futurity last fall. He has the right style, the right pedigree, and a brilliant trainer in Michael Dickinson. He won the Wood even though Dickinson acknowledged that he wasn't completely fit. He is sure to improve at Churchill Downs. Yet the Wood may have been such a weak race that Tapit's good effort was illusory: Three rivals finished within two lengths of him, and none of them had ever won a graded stakes race.

* Read the Footnotes delivered the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old this season when he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream this winter, prevailing in a hard stretch duel to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 113. The stress of that race might have taken a toll on him, and he gave a lackluster performance in the Florida Derby. He hasn't raced since, and has been a forgotten horse at Churchill Downs. History is against Read the Footnotes: No horse in decades has won the Derby after a seven-week layoff from competition. His pedigree is against him, too: He's a son of the sprinter Smoke Glacken. But he does have this asset: He may be the best horse. Since he is likely to be 20-1, I am not leaving him out of my Derby combinations.

There are no questions about the readiness of The Cliff's Edge. While many of his rivals are short on experience, he has a sound foundation. He had ample experience as a 2-year-old and won a pair of stakes, both at Churchill Downs. While his first two starts of the year were disappointing, his big figure in the Blue Grass indicates he has peaked at just the right time. Unlike many of his sprint-bred rivals, he should relish running 1 1/4 miles. His sire, Gulch, has fathered many excellent distance runners, including Derby winner Thunder Gulch. Though many people regard Saturday's race as inscrutable, The Cliff's Edge meets all the important criteria for a Derby horse.

My Derby trifecta: The Cliff's Edge, Read the Footnotes, Tapit.

(c) 2004 The Washington Post