04/02/2008 11:00PM

Forecast for War Pass mostly cloudy


NEW YORK - On a Saturday packed with 14 graded stakes, including five Grade 1's and three key Derby preps, the biggest question of all surrounds the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct: What can we expect from War Pass?

The 3-year-old War Pass went from undefeated to enigmatic three weeks ago in the Tampa Bay Derby, stopping badly as the 1-20 favorite and backing up to finish last, beaten 23 lengths. It was one of the worst defeats ever by a 2-year-old champion on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and no explanation for his performance has surfaced since then.

That's both good and bad news. War Pass has been training well since that debacle, and his handlers are happy he's not a sick or injured horse, but a medical explanation might inspire more confidence in a rebound than the current diagnosis of a mysterious "one of those days."

Neck and neck with Pyro for favoritism in the first two Kentucky Derby Future Wager betting pools, War Pass was a distant third choice to Big Brown and Pyro in the early batting in Pool 3, which opened Thursday and closes Sunday. You have to be a little soft in the head to be betting into that pool before the Wood, Illinois Derby, and Santa Anita Derby are all run Saturday, yet even a big victory is unlikely to restore War Pass to where he was when he walked into the gate at Tampa three weeks ago.

If he gets loose early and wins with authority, bettors will still be wary of him four weeks later in Louisville. The Tampa performance, his first around two turns on a fast track, only amplified the uncertainty about his distance capabilities. The sudden emergence of Big Brown off his front-running Florida Derby romp also raises the question of how War Pass would deal with early pressure from a rival of that quality, since he couldn't overcome having third-rate rivals near him early at Tampa. Again, this leads back to the question of whether the Tampa race was at all revelatory or so thoroughly dismal an effort it is best ignored.

When Afleet Alex finished a similarly baffling sixth in the 2005 Rebel, he was found shortly after the race to be suffering from a lung infection. Secretariat turned out to have a painful abscessed tooth after running a dull third in the 1973 Wood. Those colts rebounded and went on to fulfill their potential, proving their prep defeats were aberrations. For others, though, such a loss was a sign of distance limitations or that their precocity would no longer hold sway. The defeats of juvenile champions such as Devil's Bag in the 1984 Flamingo, Fly So Free in the 1991 Blue Grass, and Favorite Trick in the 1998 Arkansas Derby turned out to be valid warnings that they were not going to go on to be classic winners.

Fresher in mind is the 2008 campaign of the winner of the last Grade 1 race in New York until Saturday's Wood. When Daaher won the Cigar Mile last Nov. 25, beating eventual Eclipse winner Midnight Lute, he was widely expected to be a major handicap horse this year and was being pointed to take on Curlin in the Dubai World Cup.

In what was supposed to be an easy tune-up for that race in the Donn Handicap on Feb. 2, he tired badly after dueling for the lead with a 50-1 shot and finished seventh as the 4-5 favorite. He checked out as cleanly as War Pass did, and the bettors were willing to draw a line through the race, sending him off at 2-5 a month later in the Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct. He ran almost as badly, tiring again to finish a distant third. A week later, he was found to have an injury and retired.

As if War Pass weren't enough of a mystery in the Wood, the two most plausible alternatives to him in the race, Court Vision and Tale of Ekati, have somewhat similar profiles to the favorite: Both won major stakes in New York as 2-year-olds last year but are coming off lengthy defeats. Court Vision showed grit and promise winning a slow but roughly run Remsen half an hour before Daaher's Cigar Mile, then was an indifferent third in a weak Fountain of Youth in his season debut. Tale of Ekati, who won the Belmont Futurity with a dazzling rail move, was flat as a pancake running sixth in Pyro's Louisiana Derby.

That's an awful lot of uncertainty for one horse race, but it certainly makes this 84th Wood Memorial an unusually interesting one.