03/18/2004 12:00AM

Florida Derby was indeed a dud

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NEW YORK - A Fountain of Youth in 1:42.71. A Florida Derby in 1:51.38. These are times that try men's souls, especially if they try to convert them to meaningful speed figures.

A thoroughly confusing Kentucky Derby prep season reached a nadir of clarity with the first Grade 1 race for the division, last Saturday's Florida Derby, and not just because a 37-1 shot ended up getting his picture taken.

The most remarkable thing about the prep season so far has been the sizzling final time of the Fountain of Youth, where Read the Footnotes earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113, one of the best of the past decade in any Derby tuneup. Instead of a similarly impressive or even just more down-to-earth Florida Derby, though, we got a race that earned an anemic Beyer of 92, one of the slowest ever recorded in a major Derby prep.

A 21-point plunge by Florida's top 3-year-olds in a month might lead you to question the sanity of speed figures in general or the judgments involved in making these particular ones. There are plenty of confusing days when the most rigorous student of time finds himself at sea amid changing track conditions and contradictory clockings, and must make projections or take his best guess.

This, however, was not one of those troublesome occasions.

The Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby cards were a figure-maker's dream because they were filled with numerous races for 3-year-olds at the same or easily comparable distances. On both days, there were nine-furlong races for both 3-year-old maidens and one-other-than allowance colts preceding the stakes races. On Fountain of Youth Day, Intimidator won a maiden race in 1:52.66 and Swingforthefences won the first-level allowance in 1:50.67. These clockings suggested the main event, at 1 1/16 miles, would be run somewhere between 1:43 and 1:44 if it was a decent race. The 1:42.71 registered by Read the Footnotes and Second of June was clearly something special.

On Florida Derby Day, the Gulfstream track was slower but not drastically so, somewhere between a half-second and a full second, and that difference is built into the figures; in fact, such differences are why it is necessary to make figures instead of comparing raw times. This time the maiden route went in 1:52.23 to Go Now, and the one-other-than allowance in 1:50.97 to Suave. Off those two times, it was simple to project a Florida Derby clocking of around 1:49.50 if Read the Footnotes ran another 113, or somewhere in the low 1:50 range if he fell back to a more mortal 105 or so. Instead, the race was run in a dreadful 1:51.38 - two-fifths slower than Suave's allowance race 74 minutes earlier and a perfect fit with the preceding and subsequent races if you assigned it a lowly final figure of 92.

Two theories have been offered in defense of the slow Florida Derby time. The first is that something happened to the track surface during those 74 minutes, perhaps a lack of water on a cuppy track loosened up on a windy afternoon. The problem with that hypothesis is that the times of the two subsequent dirt races on the card showed no evidence of a deteriorating surface. The Swale half an hour after the Florida Derby was clocked in 1:22.87, which fell right in line with four earlier seven-furlong races on the card. The finale, a $100,000 stakes for older horses, went in 1:43.26 for 1 1/16 miles, another time that suggests an average Florida Derby would have been run in 1:50 or faster.

So unless the track was evenly maintained for races 1 through 7, neglected for race 9, and then restored to its previous condition for races 10 and 12, the idea doesn't hold water.

Dennis Testa, Gulfstream's director of operations, defended the condition of the track but offered an even less compelling explanation for the Florida Derby time: "That particular race had a slow pace," he told Daily Racing Form. In fact, the maiden nine-furlong race had a six-furlong pace time of 1:13.06, Suave was on the lead in 1:12.83, and the Florida Derby pace was relatively fast and honest at 1:11.54.

So unless there was an "X Files" interruption in the fabric of the space-time continuum, the Florida Derby was precisely as slow as it looked. Read the Footnotes took a 27-point Beyer dive from a 113 to an 86 and Value Plus tumbled from a 108 sprinting to a 91 routing. The apparently promising closing finishes of the victorious Friends Lake and the troubled The Cliff's Edge may have been pure optical illusions as they lumbered into a horrendous final furlong of 13.78 seconds - exactly a full second slower than Suave came home winning his allowance race.

The first confirmation that the Florida Derby may have been as bad as the clock suggests came the next afternoon in the Tampa Bay Derby. If the Florida Derby were better than its time, shouldn't the local horses who ran close to The Cliff's Edge last time out have done well? You couldn't find them with a search warrant, and the second- and third-place finishers, Mustanfar and Swingforthe-fences, had been right there with Suave in a Gulfstream allowance race on Jan. 24. That's the same Swingforthefences who ran 17 points slower than stablemate Read the Footnotes on the Fountain of Youth card.

Difficult as it may be to accept, the Fountain of Youth really was as good as it looked and the Florida Derby really was as weak as the figure it earned. All of which confirms that the Derby picture is as messy and muddled as can be.