02/13/2007 1:00AM

First pieces of Derby puzzle fall in place

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Deborah Kral/Horsephotos
Summer Doldrums, ridden by Mike Luzzi, marked himself as a Derby hopeful with his Whirlaway victory.

NEW YORK - It is only fitting that on a weekend when the first round of betting on the Kentucky Derby Future Wager took place, events on the racetrack Saturday helped, for the most part, bring the long-range picture for the May 5 Kentucky Derby into sharper focus, if ever so slightly.

Notional solidified his status as an upstanding second-tier Derby player with his victory in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, and Summer Doldrums emerged as an intriguing Derby hopeful with an impressive score in Aqueduct's Whirlaway Stakes. Dreaming of Anna's Derby aspirations, such as they might have been, ended with a whimper with her disappointing third in the Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and the same might be the case for Lawrence the Roman. His dismal fifth in the Whirlaway as the heavy favorite might have brought a quick conclusion to two things: his hopes for being a Derby colt, and the betting careers of terribly misguided bridge jumpers. About the only matter that could have been resolved on Saturday and wasn't concerned Circular Quay, whose bad trip as the strong favorite in the Risen Star meant that the answer to the question of whether he is indeed a top-tier Derby candidate will have to wait until a later date.

There is really no appeal in knocking a colt like Notional, who, since getting blinkers, has now won two graded stakes this year in clear-cut fashion. Certainly, he belongs squarely in the middle of anyone's list of top 25 Kentucky Derby candidates. But in the unforgiving sphere of Derby prep analysis, it is difficult to be terribly enthused over Notional's actual chances of winning the Derby, at least at this point. Even though he broke from an outside post in the Risen Star and was between horses much of the way, he really had a perfect trip. Notional got a strong early pace to rally into, and had only the limited Zanjero to run down in the stretch. And with all of that going for him, Notional still did not run as fast as the filly Appealing Zophie did winning the Silverbulletday Stakes the race before, although the much slower early fractions in the Silverbulletday make final time comparisons between it and the Risen Star a bit tricky. The bottom line with Notional, however, is that the 92 Beyer Speed Figure he got in the Risen Star, and the 94 he earned winning last month's San Rafael, just aren't good enough for him to be considered a more serious Derby threat.

On the other hand, Summer Doldrums ran fast in the Whirlaway, which he took in decisive fashion after disputing a solid early pace for his third win from his last four starts. And the 106 Beyer Figure that Summer Doldrums was awarded in the Whirlaway meant that on Saturday, at the 1 1/16-mile distance of both races, Summer Doldrums was a little more than eight lengths better than Notional was in the Risen Star. The main cause for reservation concerning Summer Doldrums is that the one time he did compete in a major stakes race, he was far up the track in the Remsen. That could be taken as evidence of just how good Nobiz Like Shobiz was the day he won the Remsen. But considering the way Summer Doldrums has bracketed wins around the Remsen, it could also be that his poor effort in that race was far from a true bill.

It appears that Dreaming of Anna's disappointing effort in the Old Hat is being taken as a true bill by her connections. Now, whether Dreaming of Anna was ever seriously being considered for a run at the Kentucky Derby is open to some conjecture. But after she clinched last year's 2-year-old filly championship with her victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, her people talked about winning the Triple Crown with her. And that was enough for Dreaming of Anna to be an individual betting interest in both last weekend's Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks future wagers. After being run off her feet in the Old Hat by the impressive Dream Rush, however, trainer Wayne Catalano told the Form's Mike Welsch that Dreaming of Anna would now concentrate strictly on turf racing.

Speaking of being run off one's feet, Lawrence the Roman just gave up the ghost in the Whirlaway, much to the consternation of those who plunged on him in the show pool. It's difficult now not to think that Lawrence the Roman's three big wins last year were a function of facing soft New York-bred company. That, of course, is not to say all New York-bred company is soft, or that a New York-bred can't win the Derby, because it was only four years ago that New York-bred Funny Cide won the Derby. It is to say that Lawrence the Roman isn't likely to be the next New York-bred to do so.

Finally, we circle back to the Risen Star and Circular Quay. It is impossible to say that the severe trouble Circular Quay encountered in the Risen Star - he had to be taken up sharply when Slew's Tizzy clipped heels and dumped his rider right in front of him at the top of the stretch - cost him the win. What can be said with certainty is that Circular Quay was moving well on the inside on the far turn when he was only about a length behind Notional, and that the Risen Star's fast pace set up nicely for Circular Quay's late kick. But if anything can be gleaned from Circular Quay in the Risen Star in a Kentucky Derby context, it is that deep closers like Circular Quay need an extra measure of racing luck, and are always more prone to trouble than horses with positional speed. And this becomes even more magnified in 20-horse Kentucky Derby fields.