03/14/2003 12:00AM

Focus on inactive horses for value

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - By the time the Florida Derby, Swale, Gotham, San Felipe, and Tampa Bay Derby have been run on Saturday and Sunday, the Kentucky Derby picture will have changed, perhaps significantly. Bettors who plan to wager on any of the horses competing in those races in Churchill's Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Futures are strongly advised to wait to see the results of those races before investing their money.

Those of us looking for overlays in Pool 2 see our chance to grab an edge over our fellow bettors diminish as more information is revealed with the running of each prep race. Rather than focusing on the contenders who run well this weekend, and are hammered down to low odds, I will look for betting value among the other contenders who are temporarily being overlooked.

Great Notion used to be a sprinter, but he proved that he is much more than that in the one-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on March 1. Rather than running off to a huge early lead through aggressive sprint-like splits, Great Notion relaxed beautifully through fractions of 47.80 seconds and 1:13.49, and patiently waited for jockey Terry Thompson to ask him for his best. When favored Comic Truth and third-betting choice Alke moved up to challenge Great Notion, Thompson asked his horse for more, and Great Notion responded by uncorking a much faster-than-par 25.49 come-home time over that dull strip while extending his lead from one to nine lengths, with speed to spare. Great Notion's 104 Beyer for that win is higher than the last-race numbers (prior to this weekend) earned by 19 of the 22 other runners listed as individual betting interests in Pool 2, and is only 2 points lower than the highest last-race Beyer in the group.

Great Notion appeared to be going quite comfortably and just as easily could have made that same move a furlong or two later if he had been running in a longer race. Give trainer Darrin Miller the credit for Great Notion's improved ability to relax early.

"I gave him a lot of long, slow works while teaching him to settle, with the idea of getting him to finish up strongly," said Miller. Great Notion has been a good student, and should continue to make progress on the road to the Derby. He will be quite dangerous in Louisville if he can adjust to running those same relaxed splits while rating just off the pace. He is worth a bet at attractive odds in Pool 2.

Badge of Silver appeared to be on his way to remaining undefeated in what would have been his fourth straight convincing victory when he grabbed the lead while apparently full of run turning for home in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. But he stopped abruptly during the last 1 1/2 furlongs of that race. Badge of Silver is obviously a much better horse than he showed that day, and his connections believe he was unable to breathe properly when he displaced his palate. His airway should remain clear in future races following a myectomy, a minor surgical procedure designed to prevent a recurrence of that problem. I expect to see Badge of Silver run a much better race in the Illinois Derby on April 5. A return to form would make him the horse to beat, and double-digit odds are worth taking.

Inamorato edged Outta Here when they both debuted at Hollywood last year, and Outta Here flattered him by finishing second in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship two weeks later. Inamorato's six-length comeback win on March 8 at Nad Al Sheba is hard to gauge, but it is encouraging to see that he handled 1 1/8 miles well. He would be worth an insurance bet at 50-1 or higher.

Lion Tamer looked good when he drew off to win the Grade 2 Hutcheson by six lengths. But he pressed a swift 44.29 half-mile split in that seven-furlong race, and must rate much more kindly than that when he stretches out in his first route attempt in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. I would like 25-1 or higher before making an insurance bet on him in this pool.

Peace Rules capitalized when Kafwain regressed and when Badge of Silver, who had passed him, suddenly stopped in the Louisiana Derby. Peace Rules deserves respect, but this year's Derby is too wide open at this point to make odds in the neighborhood of 8-1 worth taking.

Kafwain disappointed when he made only minor progress down the stretch in his second-place finish behind Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby. He will have to show much more than that to live up to his billing as a serious Derby contender. At anything close to the 8-1 estimated odds for him in Pool 2, I will be looking to beat him.

Ministers Wild Cat suffered through a wide trip while second in the El Camino Real, but even after factoring in the lost ground he hasn't yet run fast enough at route distances to match up with the leading contenders. He is an underlay at a price expected to be around 15-1 to 20-1.

Composure will have to improve to beat males, and seems more likely to run in the Kentucky Oaks.

Ocean Terrace won the Grade 3 El Camino Real at Golden Gate, but he ran the last 1 1/2 furlongs of that 1 1/16-mile race in a slow 32.79. That does not bode well for his chances at 1 1/4 miles. He must prove that he can finish more strongly than that. Until he does, I will pass.

Funny Cide appears to be a cut below the contenders, and doesn't figure to move up at longer distances.

Offlee Wild made no significant progress down the stretch when he finished in mid-pack in the Fountain of Youth. He will have to improve to be a threat.