04/14/2004 11:00PM

Fire Slam might slip under radar

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NEW YORK - As the last real prep for the Kentucky Derby, Saturday's Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes is already an event of some import. But it is even more important this year, what with the Derby picture being so unsettled, with so many still looking to start in the Derby, and with every nickel of graded-stakes earnings - which determine the 20 who will start in the Derby - being so precious. This is what makes the Lexington the focal point of an eclectic national stakes schedule Saturday.

The other Grade 2 stakes on Saturday is the $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf at Santa Anita, where a chance of showers threatens to make the handicapping a little more difficult. And the second $250,000 event on the schedule is the Grade 3 National Jockey Club Handicap at Hawthorne, in which Ten Most Wanted will try to re-establish himself in the male handicap division.

The only other graded stakes Saturday is Aqueduct's Grade 3, $150,000 Bed o' Roses Breeders' Cup Handicap. But, Pimlico has a lucrative doubleheader comprising the $150,000 Jim McKay Breeders' Cup Handicap and the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes, something of a local springboard to the Preakness.

See, we're already looking beyond the Derby! Here are my three bet-worthy stakes:

Coolmore Lexington

In a race where there are a few horses I respect - like Pomeroy, Boomzeeboom, and Saratoga County - and a couple who I think are underrated, at least in terms of the bigger 3-year-old picture - like Song of the Sword and Quintons Gold Rush - I'm picking Fire Slam. As for some of the others mentioned, Pomeroy could regress off a draining first start of the year, Boomzeeboom could be surprised by a stronger pace scenario, and Saratoga County could not have drawn a worse post. Quintons Gold Rush may be overbet, especially with Jerry Bailey up, but I think Fire Slam may slip through the cracks and be an overlay.

Fire Slam has been freshened since running what on paper may look like the worst performance of his career, a fifth in the Louisiana Derby. In fact, Fire Slam ran a very good race at Fair Grounds. He disputed an insanely fast pace, was still in contention in midstretch, and was the only pace horse even remotely close to the leaders at the finish. New rider Pat Day will, if nothing else, get Fire Slam to relax early this time, and that is the style Fire Slam employed winning three of his first four starts, one over the Keeneland main track last fall.

Jim McKay

I picked Unforgettable Max in his last start in the Toboggan Handicap, and he rewarded me with a seventh-place finish. Thanks a lot. Ever stubborn, I'm going right back to him.

In actuality, Unforgettable Max was in with tougher company in the Toboggan than he faces Saturday. Plus, it was an unsuccessful first attempt with blinkers, which come right off now, and he may also have shown negative effects from a strong second in the General George two starts back, which came off a layoff. Unforgettable Max makes his first start Saturday for trainer Bruce Levine, who has an excellent strike rate and a positive return on investment in such situations, and he stretches out to a distance at which he ran big last fall when he was nosed by During in the Discovery Handicap.

Bed o' Roses

The first thing that jumps out at you about this race is, where's the speed? There are a few who have shown some early foot in other paceless races, but there is not one genuine front-runner in the field. I'm hoping that Victory Encounter can capitalize on this situation.

Although the Southern California-based Victory Encounter evolved into a closer in her recent starts, including a victory in the El Encino Stakes two races back, she had previously demonstrated early foot winning four of her first six career outings. Victory Encounter has not raced in two months, since a dismal effort as the 9-5 favorite in the La Canada Stakes that is best ignored. But, fresh horses often show enhanced early speed, especially comebackers who have some very quick recent workouts like Victory Encounter does.