07/18/2002 12:00AM

Five-horse Ohio Derby trickier than it looks


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Looking for the winner of Saturday's 1 1/8 mile Grade 2 Ohio Derby at Thistledown? It's a piece of cake. Wiseman's Ferry is clearly the lone speed in this five horse field, and is a perfect 2 for 2 in this country when able to grab a clear early lead. Throw in the talented trainer Niall O'Callaghan and jockey Jorge Chavez on the colt, and you have a great overlay on the probable second betting choice. All you have to do is overlook his 50 1/4-length defeat in the Belmont, and his 45 Beyer from that race, and he figures to cruise at about 2-1.

Come to think of it, maybe 2-1 isn't the kind of price you'll be comfortable with following that dull last performance. This compact field might be more competitive than it appeared to be at first glance.

Looking for an alternative to Wiseman's Ferry? Look no further than probable favorite Magic Weisner. He finished in the money in nine of his last 10 races. Magic Weisner was a fast-closing second to War Emblem in the Preakness while earning a career-best 108 Beyer, four points higher than the best career number earned by any of his opponents in this field. And he finished a respectable fourth in the Belmont, 39 1/4 lengths ahead of Wiseman's Ferry. If Wiseman's Ferry throws in another clunker, Magic Weisner figures to dominate an opponent who just lost an $80,000 optional claiming race by 28 lengths, a horse who was all out to win an allowance N1X by a head, and a horse coming off a win in a minor stakes at Calder last time out.

Of course, there is another angle on Magic Weisner. Throw out his highly rated second-place finish in the Preakness, and the Beyers from his six other recent races read this way (oldest races first): 84-88-85-93-97-92. Those numbers are only about as good as the recent Beyers earned by The Judge Sez Who and Peekskill, and those two rivals both registered better figures last time out. If you are going to accept even money on a horse, shouldn't he have a series of recent Beyers that show a consistent edge over those of his competitors?

Those hoping to beat the first two betting choices should take a long look at The Judge Sez Who. He is the most consistent horse in the field with a 13-6-4-1 career record. He shows six straight in-the-money finishes, including a second behind Political Attack in the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby, and wins in two of his last three races. Although The Judge Sez Who doesn't have the speed to keep Wiseman's Ferry honest early, if that opponent caves in on his own, The Judge Sez Who should be in perfect position to capitalize while tracking him in second place. If The Judge Sez Who inherits the lead, he'll have the jump on Magic Weisner, and might not be caught.

Peekskill finished a distant third as a 96-1 longshot in the Grade 1 Florida Derby four races ago, but didn't make an impact behind War Emblem in the Illinois Derby. He finished 5 3/4 lengths behind Wiseman's Ferry while third in the Lone Star Derby, then was all out to win by only a head as the 7-10 favorite in an allowance N1X at Churchill. Nevertheless, Peekskill's Beyers are competitive with the typical numbers delivered by the other contenders, and since his last start he shows a sharp 47.20-second four-furlong breeze at Churchill on July 13, the fastest of 36 works at the distance that day.

The weakest link in the field appears to be Grey Beard. Although he defeated Peekskill by 4 3/4 lengths when he won an allowance N1X at Gulfstream, and earned a career-best 88 Beyer that day, he lost three subsequent starts by a combined total of 52 1/4 lengths. Contrarians will note that his last two defeats were on the turf, and the other was a 16-length loss in the Fountain of Youth. Nevertheless, Grey Beard still appears to be in tough in this race.

As this is written, Thistledown plans to accept show wagers on the Ohio Derby, provided that there are no late scratches. I don't recommend bridge-jumping bets to anyone (massive show bets made on horses who are believed to be almost certain to finish among the top three in a race, with the expectation of collecting a 5 percent profit), but with only four serious contenders in a five-horse field, it is possible that bridge jumpers might view this race as a potential betting opportunity.

If so, caution is advised since Wiseman's Ferry's big loss last time and Magic Weisner's moderate Beyers make them both riskier than they ought to be for anyone chasing a small $2.10 potential payoff.