04/28/2004 12:00AM

Few born to go that extra eighth

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LAS VEGAS - This year's Kentucky Derby is a handicapper's dream, with quality speed, off-the-pace runners and true closers. But what makes the Kentucky Derby unique has always been its distance.

Most in the Derby are trying 1 1/4 miles for the first time, and this classic distance separates the men from the boys. One exception was Canonero II, who had won two races at 1 1/4 miles before his shocking victory in the 1971 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The list of flashy 3-year-olds who received high speed figures winning races up to 1 1/8 miles but flopped in the Derby is endless. Graeme Hall (2000) and Balto Star (2001) easily won their final Derby preps in the Arkansas Derby, but winning at 1 1/8 miles over a speed-favoring surface does not equate to winning at 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs. Neither Graeme Hall nor Balto Star was bred to be at their best at 1 1/4 miles and were automatic throwouts. (Balto Star has won several times at distances longer than 1 1/4 miles, but as an older horse and only on the turf.)

Favorite Trick was an undefeated champion at 2 (and Horse of the Year) and won his first start as a 3-year-old in the Swale Stakes. Talented and courageous, he was by Phone Trick out of a Medieval Man mare, and was a poor bet at 1 1/4 miles. Third, beaten only a neck by Victory Gallop and Hanuman Highway in the 1998 Arkansas Derby after leading most of the way, he was 4-1 in the Kentucky Derby and finished eighth, beaten 12 1/4 lengths.

Hot pace quite likely

War Emblem was the lone speed when he won the 2002 Kentucky Derby. This year, however, nobody will steal the race. There are at least five colts with speed that will ensure a sizzling pace - Lion Heart (by Tale of the Cat), Quintons Gold Rush (Wild Rush), Read the Footnotes (Smoke Glacken), Limehouse (Grand Slam) and Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality) - and none of them is bred to withstand that kind of pressure and still be strong at the end of 1 1/4 miles.

The sires of these five colts are all speed influences, and while it is possible they could win at 1 1/4 miles under ideal circumstances, their heated battle up front should set the table for the true 1 1/4-mile horses.

Smarty Jones may be able to rate, but he has never faced either the speed of Lion Heart or the closing kick of Tapit or The Cliff's Edge. I have been a most ardent fan of his sire, speed influence Elusive Quality, as well as his female family, which was cultivated by the Phipps family and traces to the legendary La Troienne. But quite simply, Smarty Jones is not a 1 1/4-mile horse. For that matter, neither is Birdstone (by speed influence Grindstone), Minister Eric (by speed influence Old Trieste), Song of the Sword (by speed influence Unbridled's Song), or Pollard's Vision (by speed influence Carson City).

It comes down to five

The Cliff's Edge is peaking at the right time and is undefeated over the Churchill oval, not an insignificant fact. Champion sprinter Gulch has proven to be a solid sire of stayers. His son Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby, Nayef won the Juddmonte International and Champion Stakes, both at 1 1/4 miles or more, and Wallenda won the Super Derby at 1 1/4 miles.

More than any other colt in this year's Derby, Castledale is bred to run all day. By an Arc de Triomphe winner, Peintre Celebre, out of a mare by Silver Hawk, he has a pedigree to go long on turf. While many will be wilting in the stretch, Castledale, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, will be flying at the end.

By A.P. Indy out of multiple stakes winner Antespend, Friends Lake will thrive at 1 1/4 miles, and the only question about him is the seven-week gap between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Expected to be a big price, he is a must-use in all exotics.

The much-maligned Action This Day has had a troubled 3-year-old campaign, but if trainer Richard Mandella has him healthy, this 1 1/4-mile horse (Kris S. out of a Trempolino mare) will be a factor in the stretch at inflated odds.

And finally, there is Tapit, whom I expect to win the Derby. He won his career debut at one mile in a romp, and his victory in the Laurel Futurity, just his second start, was simply jaw-dropping. Hopelessly boxed in for most of the race, he checked repeatedly, but once clear, his acceleration was breathless. It was arguably the best race by any juvenile last year.

Asking him to face The Cliff's Edge, Read the Footnotes, Value Plus, and other more seasoned colts at 1 1/8 miles in the Florida Derby in his first start back as a 3-year-old was brutal, and it was amazing that Tapit finished only 5 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Friends Lake, considering he came out of the race with a serious lung infection.

Tapit's unlikely victory in the Wood Memorial off the Florida Derby fiasco once again underscored his raw talent. He has more potential than any in this year's field, and his pedigree and trainer will easily get him 1 1/4 miles.

His sire is the emerging Pulpit (A.P. Indy) and his first two broodmare sires, Unbridled and Nijinsky II, add powerful stamina. Tapit's dam is a half-sister to champion Rubiano, his second dam is a half-sister to Glitterman, and his third dam is a full sister to Relaunch.

With horses like Fleet Renee and Soto, two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Michael Dickinson has dispelled the notion that he is "just" a turf trainer. A victory in the Kentucky Derby would be the crowning achievement in a career already full of distinguished achievements.