02/09/2006 1:00AM

Florida, California horses best for fantasy stable


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For many fantasy sports league players, the season begins and ends with NFL football. Of course, there is no reason why it should. Other leagues exist - including one, the Road to the Roses online fantasy game (www.roadtotheroses.com), which revolves around the Kentucky Derby and its prep races.

The rules are similar to that of fantasy football: compile a team and accumulate points. Instead of trying to win games, you try to win races with your team of horses and horsemen. The first eligible races are Saturday, and continue all the way up to the Kentucky Derby, the most influential race in the contest.

Working for Daily Racing Form, one of the partners in the contest with Churchill Downs, I'm ineligible to win, but that hasn't discouraged me from putting together a strategy and hypothetical stable for the contest - which has some good prizes, ranging from weekly monetary awards to tickets to the Derby.

Before laying out my stable, here are the basic rules. Participating players pick 10 horses, two jockeys, and two trainers to accumulate points in 32 designated stakes races. Contest players then activate five of their 10 horses on a week-by-week basis, based on whether they are expected to be running. Then in the months to come, there are two supplemental drafts offering the chance to pick up a total of five more horses.

All the rules, as well as an application to participate, are available at www.roadtotheroses.com.

A good place to start when formulating a stable is to glance at past performances for Triple Crown nominations, focusing primarily on those horses that were chosen as individual betting interests for the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. My choices are listed below, marked in bold print.

Following an injury to Stevie Wonderboy, Brother Derek is an obvious must-use on everyone's stable. Winner of the Hollywood Futurity and San Rafael Stakes, he appears to stand out over the other West Coast prospects, if not the entire country.

First Samurai similarly must be used to represent a fantasy stable in the Florida region. Although beaten in his seasonal bow when second to Keyed Entry in the Hutcheson, he has a right to move forward in the coming months. The 107 Beyer Speed Figure he earned over a sloppy track in the Hutcheson suggests a bright 3-year-old campaign.

Keyed Entry is also in my hypothetical stable, in great part for his Hutcheson victory. Yes, it came on a sloppy track, but with Eclipse Award-winning connections like Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez in his corner, he appears legit.

Speaking of Pletcher and Velazquez, two of my choices for the horsemen part of my stable, they're also associated with Bluegrass Cat, winner of the Nashua and Remsen stakes last fall. A son of Storm Cat out of an A.P. Indy mare, he has the pedigree and talent to be a prime contender for the Kentucky Derby.

As for the rest of my hypothetical stable, it includes Private Vow, winner of the Grade 2 Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club last year; the unbeaten Barbaro, who won the Grade 3 Holy Bull in his first dirt start; Grade 3 Sham winner Bob and John; Barbican and Lawyer Ron, two colts prepping for the Feb. 20 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn; and Too Much Bling, a sprinter who figures as the favorite in Sunday's Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes.

Besides Pletcher and Velazquez, my other choices in the trainer and jockey categories are Bob Baffert and Edgar Prado. Three-time Derby winner Baffert has one of the country's most talent-laden stables, and Prado has ridden in recent weeks both Barbaro and First Samurai, two colts that could prove to be big point getters.

My strategy is twofold. Obviously I think highly of all of these horses - but more than that, they're stabled in the right parts of the country. In looking through the point-earning races leading up to the Derby, it is clear that races from California and Florida offer the most reward, at least up until April. Therefore nine of my 10 selections are based in either of those two states, although one of those nine, Barbican, is being pointed for the Southwest in Arkansas.

I also chose to stay away from lightly raced but talented prospects, such as recent maiden winner Latent Heat, reasoning that horses like him might not surface in stakes until March. By that point, a Road to the Roses player could pick up such a horse in the first of two supplemental drafts.

Players may also wish to pick up at least one sprinter for the early stages of the contest - as I did in adding Too Much Bling to my hypothetical stable - hoping to capitalize with wins in such prominent one-turn races as the San Vicente, Swale, or Gotham. A horse like Too Much Bling might not be able to get 1 1/4 miles in a pick-up truck, as the saying goes, but that doesn't mean that he won't generate points for the next couple months.