04/04/2005 12:00AM

Florida Derby stars bucking history


NEW YORK - Nick Zito was understandably optimistic after sending out High Fly and Noble Causeway to finish first and second in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, the meeting's key prep for the Kentucky Derby. "Maybe," Zito told the Gulfstream press staff, "these are the horses that will show people that you can win the Derby off a five-week layoff."

Maybe, but if either does, it will be in the face of a lot of history.

This year, the Florida Derby came exactly five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without a race in the previous five weeks was Needles 49 years ago. When he won the 1956 Derby, Needles had not raced since he had won the Florida Derby six weeks earlier. Needles still was the 8-5 favorite in Kentucky, which speaks to his quality, but it also says a lot about his competition. The names of the horses that finished behind Needles do not sound like a roll call for the Hall of Fame.

It would take a parade of 30-1 shots in the remaining Kentucky Derby prep races - and lots of key defections - for either High Fly or Noble Causeway to be as dominant a betting favorite in the Derby as was Needles. And Needles was a dominant favorite. You have to go all the way out to 4-1, to the Calumet Farm entry of Fabius and Pintor Lea, to find the second choice behind Needles in the 1956 Derby betting. As wide open as this year's Derby is shaping up to be, it is hard to envision either High Fly or Noble Causeway being backed nearly as strongly. That is not to say High Fly and Noble Causeway did not run well Saturday, or aren't nice horses. They did, and they are.

High Fly ran a race similar to the one he ran when he won last month's Fountain of Youth, stalking a pace set by B. B. Best before taking control in the final furlong. But this performance was a little better. The Florida Derby pace was faster, and B. B. Best, in his third start off a layoff and second attempt at 1 1/8 miles, was a tougher customer to put away. Also, High Fly ran a little faster to earn a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 102, and he appeared much more comfortable, not to mention effective, at the 1 1/8-mile distance.

With his strong second-place finish, Noble Causeway proved that he is for real. When he won an allowance race in his last start on the Fountain of Youth undercard, there was some question about his performance relating to the Beyer Speed Figure he received.

Fountain of Youth Day was a tricky day for speed-figure makers. The main track at Gulfstream that day started out labeled good, but was upgraded to fast during the afternoon. The relative speed of the racing surface also increased during the afternoon. When Noble Causeway won that allowance race, he ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.89. When High Fly won the Fountain of Youth three races later, he went the same distance in 1:49.70. Normally, such a disparity in time would, at that distance, make for a difference of about 10 Beyer points. But the Beyer team decided that the track was slower for Noble Causeway's race than it was for High Fly's and gave Noble Causeway a 96 and High Fly a 99. The outcome of the Florida Derby was strong evidence that the Beyer folks made the correct call. By finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind High Fly Saturday, Noble Causeway received a Beyer Figure 2 points lower than what High Fly got, or a 100, meaning everything fell into line nicely.

That, however, is not the only reason to commend Noble Causeway. He did go from two wide to four wide around the far turn in the Florida Derby, his stakes debut, and that kind of ground loss had to play a role in the 1 1/2 lengths between him and High Fly at the finish. Noble Causeway has now raced six times, and in each start he has earned a higher Beyer Figure than he did in his start before. Is Noble Causeway an improving colt? Definitely.

The problem for both High Fly and Noble Causeway is the five-week gap between races going into the Kentucky Derby. When management at Gulfstream decided this year to change the date of the Florida Derby, it took a race that was unquestionably the preeminent Kentucky Derby prep in March and chose not to place it among the other major Derby preps of April - the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby - but instead slotted it in limbo. We will know for sure come dusk on Derby Day, but history says that in the process Gulfstream also made it tougher for horses from its signature event to go on to success in Kentucky.