03/08/2006 1:00AM

First key race: Grab a contender

Edgar Prado has picked up Keyed Entry for the Gotham, giving him mounts on no less than four serious contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

What would Jerry do? That was the question that struck fear into the hearts of rival jockeys and their agents every spring, when the specter of Jerry Bailey loomed over every good Kentucky Derby prospect.

Now that Bailey has retired, it has left Edgar Prado and John Velazquez circling each other like sharks, seeking the choice mounts abdicated by the other. Both have compiled impressive rosters of 3-year-olds this spring. Do your job too well, though, and eventually they will intersect. This month, it is Prado who is the beneficiary of Velazquez's largesse, but the roles could be reversed in a month.

Velazquez has been riding both Bluegrass Cat, the winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes, and the unbeaten Keyed Entry, the winner of the Hutcheson Stakes, for his primary client, trainer Todd Pletcher. Both are scheduled to make their next start on March 18, but since South Korean labs have yet to clone Velazquez, he had to make a choice.

Velazquez on Wednesday decided to ride Bluegrass Cat in the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby. Prado and his agent, Bob Frieze, quickly leaped into the void, snatching up Keyed Entry for the Grade 3, $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Landing Keyed Entry puts Prado on four serious Derby contenders. He also is the regular rider for Barbaro, the unbeaten winner of the Holy Bull; First Samurai, who won last week's Fountain of Youth Stakes via disqualification; and the unbeaten Strong Contender, an impressive allowance winner at Gulfstream. None of those horses was scheduled to race March 18, freeing Prado to get on Keyed Entry. But if all four continue to progress, it is Prado who will have some serious decisions to make on or before April 15, if First Samurai and Strong Contender, for instance, both point for the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"The main thing so far has been keeping them separated," Frieze said Wednesday from Florida. "Right now, you're just hoping they all get there, because so much can happen. We're just taking it one step at a time now. It's nice now, but after April 1 we're going to have to make some decisions on which way to go."

Pletcher said he left the choice of Bluegrass Cat and Keyed Entry to Velazquez and his agent, Angel Cordero Jr.

"I don't want to get in the way of Johnny with his Kentucky Derby mounts," Pletcher said. "This was a particularly hard decision, because anyone who works or trains or is around Keyed Entry knows how good he is. You'd want to stay with a horse like that as long as possible. He's undefeated. He's training super. In a perfect world, Keyed Entry would already have gone two turns, so Johnny could have made a better comparison with Bluegrass Cat. Bluegrass Cat already has been a mile and an eighth, and he's already been a mile and a sixteenth this year. I think it came down to that."

Agents can play a key role in this process. Ron Anderson, who worked with Bailey for six years until Bailey's retirement, and who now represents Garrett Gomez, said he will try to steer trainers into spots that maximize a horse's chances, while delaying his jockey having to make a choice over desirable mounts.

"Let's say you've got two good mounts and they're both going to run in the San Felipe," Anderson said, not necessarily referring specifically to this year's Grade 2, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes, March 18 at Santa Anita. "Your first concern is to keep them separate, but you might also want to point out to a trainer that there's a spot that might be easier. You're not lying to the guy. You're enhancing his knowledge. In the end, you might keep them separate and win two races."

Anderson likes to have autonomy when making decisions regarding each day's mounts, but said the Derby is a different beast.

"Riders get antsy when you're talking about the Derby. Jerry and Gary" - Anderson said, referring to Bailey and Gary Stevens, with whom he won the Derby in 1995 with Thunder Gulch and 1997 with Silver Charm - "wanted to be more involved in the thought process in making those decisions. A jock can have good input on whether a horse can't quite run as far or has a physical ailment that might get in the way when you turn up the heat going to the Kentucky Derby."

Some Derby prospects invariably get injured leading up to the race, so a jockey might suddenly find himself with the choice made for him. And sometimes, fate intervenes.

In the spring of 1995, Stevens was riding in Hong Kong, but he returned periodically, and won that year's Santa Anita Derby with Larry the Legend. That colt, however, suffered an injury and missed the Kentucky Derby. Mike Smith rode Thunder Gulch to wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and Talkin Man to a win in the Gotham, but on April 15 of that year, when Thunder Gulch ran in the Blue Grass and Talkin Man the Wood Memorial, Smith rode Breeders' Cup Classic winner Concern in the Oaklawn Handicap.

Thunder Gulch finished fourth in the Blue Grass with Pat Day riding. Day chose Timber Country, the previous year's 2-year-old champ, for the Kentucky Derby. Smith, for the Derby, got back on Talkin Man, who had won the Wood Memorial with Shane Sellers.

Stevens, without a Derby mount when Larry the Legend was injured, ended up on Thunder Gulch, who won the race at 24-1.

- additional reporting by David Grening