04/07/2002 11:00PM

Far more pretenders than contenders

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NEW YORK - In handicapping, it is equally important to eliminate horses as it is to isolate the contenders. When the process of elimination is applied to the prospective field for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, it is becoming increasingly easy to conclude that no one can win it, especially in light of what transpired in Derby preps this past weekend.

Came Home won Saturday's Santa Anita Derby as expected, showing heart to go along with his already established high level of ability. You would think that courage and talent, coupled with a record that now reads 3 for 3 this year and 6 for 7 overall, would make him an imposing figure at Churchill Downs. But I don't think Came Home's Santa Anita Derby made anyone shake in their boots.

Came Home did negotiate 1 1/8 miles, but all he really proved is he can get nine furlongs under ideal circumstances. He left me thinking that he would be vulnerable in a nine-furlong race deeper in quality than the Santa Anita Derby was, and did little to suggest that he would be as effective at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.

For one thing, the time of the Santa Anita Derby was a pedestrian 1:50.02, with a last eighth of a mile in a sluggish 13.32 seconds, and Came Home, under strong handling, looked like he was doing his best. Then, as Came Home enjoyed a perfect pocket trip, there was all sorts of trouble around him. Mayakovsky stumbled at the start. Danthebluegrassman slammed into Lusty Latin at the start and was ridiculously rank early. U S S Tinosa was caught in a vice out of the gate and again into the first turn. Most notable, however, was the trip of runner-up Easy Grades.

If what jockey Gary Stevens told a national television audience is true - that Easy Grades couldn't be ridden properly because the bridle and bit were improperly applied - then it gives added reason to be skeptical about Came Home. Despite all his trouble and a four-wide trip, Easy Grades still looked like he was going to beat Came Home in upper stretch, and wound up losing by only a little more than two lengths.

What does it say when Lusty Latin, the longest shot on the board at 47-1 and whose previous two victories came in a $30,000 stakes at Turf Paradise and in a maiden claimer at Fairplex, was going fastest of all at the finish after getting hammered out of the gate and still was able to finish third, beaten only three lengths?

At least Came Home is going to Louisville off a victory. That's more than can be said for Repent, who was a dismal second as the 1-2 favorite in Saturday's Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, and who is now out of the Derby because of ankle trouble.

There was much made before the Illinois Derby of how Sportsman's is kind to speed, and that would put the late-running Repent at a disadvantage. But, while War Emblem did go wire to wire, track bias was not an issue. Front runners did not dominate in the earlier races on the card, and the fact of the matter is, after rallying into second in upper stretch, Repent actually gave ground in the final furlong to War Emblem despite being under heavy pressure from Jerry Bailey.

War Emblem, whose participation in the Kentucky Derby is unlikely, was eaten for lunch by Repent in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. That was Repent's first start of the year, but that was back in February. The outcome of the Illinois Derby was a 16-length turnaround in form, and even before Repent's injury became known, there was no conclusion to reach other than he was simply going the wrong way.

Equality also didn't do anything to advance his candidacy for the Derby by losing Saturday's Gulfstream's Aventura Stakes at 3-5. In fairness to Equality, he seemingly was caught in every opponent's back pocket for much of the race, but when he got out in upper stretch, he barely dented the lead of Marasca, who was eligible for an entry-level allowance race and is not even being considered for the Derby.

At least Marasca could run in the Derby if his connections choose that option. Rebelline, a 4-year-old filly, can't, and hopefully her victory over Johannesburg in Sunday's Gladness Stakes at The Curragh in Ireland will finally expose the fallacy of Johannesburg as a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat.

Even if Johannesburg had the pedigree and look of a colt who could get the Derby distance, and even if it seemed like he really was coming to Churchill, which I never believed, Johannesburg still couldn't be taken seriously because of his prep schedule. The Derby cannot be won off one soft prep in Europe, and that goes too for Johannesburg's stablemate, Castle Gandolfo, winner of Saturday's Foster's-International Trial at Lingfield.

Of course, someone will win the Derby and fortunately, there are still three major Derby preps left to be run on Saturday. Maybe we will see Harlan's Holiday post the big figure people want to see. Maybe Medaglia d'Oro and Buddha will alleviate concerns about their inexperience. Maybe Saarland will display a heretofore-unseen turn of foot and maybe Sunday Break will show he isn't a nut job. Maybe they won't, and if the list of Derby throwouts grows, well, there's always Bella Bellucci vs. Take Charge Lady in the Kentucky Oaks.