04/13/2005 11:00PM

Future pick hardly a lock

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NEW YORK - This was supposed to be the weekend that determined the Kentucky Derby favorite, with Consolidator, High Limit, and Sun King contesting the Blue Grass and Afleet Alex and Greater Good facing off in the Arkansas Derby. Instead, it's a lot likelier to determine the second choice in a Derby where the new question is whether everyone else is running for second money behind Bellamy Road this year.

The Wood Memorial last Saturday had looked like an ordinary race on paper but ended up showcasing as impressive a performance as anyone has seen in a Derby prep. Bellamy Road's 17 1/2-length victory was the fastest and most lopsided Wood ever, and his stratospheric Beyer Speed Figure of 120 is the fastest assigned to a Derby prep in 15 years of those published ratings.

Derby Future Wager bettors responded with the biggest pounding in the six years the wager has been offered. Bellamy Road was 38-1 before the Wood, just another possibility in a seemingly inscrutable and mediocre field of contenders. By the close of betting Sunday evening, he was the 3.40-1 favorite.

The only thing surprising is that this makes him only the fourth-shortest Pool 3 favorite in six years. Point Given was 2-1 in 2001, Empire Maker was 2.50-1 in 2003 and Fusaichi Pegasus was 3-1 in 2000. The bettors were correct that all three were exceptionally good horses, probably the best of their crops, but of course only Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby.

Now Bellamy Road has been accorded the same parimutuel respect, but the fact that he is a slightly longer price despite a faster and lengthier prep victory than any of those others recorded may speak to the one question surrounding him: What happens when he faces some legitimate pace pressure? That wasn't an issue with Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given, or Empire Maker, who won their preps from off the pace and had shown the versatility to adapt to however a race unfolded.

Bellamy Road has won four of his five starts, by a combined 43 1/2 lengths. He came from off the pace to win his debut at six furlongs, but opened a clear early lead in his four routes since. In three of them, no one so much as breathed on him during the race, and he won by daylight, lots of it. But when Consolidator ranged up alongside him in the Breeders' Futurity last fall, Consolidator went by him as if he were standing still.

Bellamy Road doesn't run like an anxious, need-the-lead type, but he has never turned back a serious challenge or engaged in any kind of a duel. If someone goes winging it early in the Derby, can he sit back, or will he get caught up in a dogfight that could leave him gasping late? That will be the biggest question surrounding this Derby, and we won't know the answer until the gates open.

The Blue Grass will thicken the plot, not only because it has at least three talented stakes winners but also because two of them are coming off solid front-running victories of their own. High Limit's Louisiana Derby and Consolidator's San Felipe earned Beyers of 105, perfectly respectable for a Derby candidate in March. If they run one-two around the track in the Blue Grass and continue on to the Derby, both figure to be close to Bellamy Road early. Rockport Harbor, who goes in the Lexington next Saturday, is another who could make it a contentious early pace at Churchill Downs.

The two other colts to watch in the Blue Grass are Sun King and Bandini. Until Bellamy Road's explosive Wood, Sun King had been Nick Zito's top Derby prospect, and he still seems like a colt with plenty of upside. In his season debut, he scored by six lengths over Survivalist, who was the distant 17 1/2-length runner-up to Bellamy Road. He's on a program designed to have him take small steps forward this spring and then peak on Derby Day. Then there's Bandini, a decent second to High Fly in the Fountain of Youth, who may at least provide a better sense of where High Fly fits into the big picture.

The Arkansas Derby is an intriguing test for two of the colts who might benefit from a blistering early duel in the Derby. Afleet Alex needs to prove that the lung infection that apparently stopped him cold in the Rebel is behind him, and he also needs to win a two-turn race and suggest that the Derby distance is within his scope. Greater Good has done little wrong, winning 5 of 7 starts, but needs to take a step forward from his current level of 95 Beyers to show he can be competitive with the best of the crop.

If Bellamy Road runs his Wood again in the Derby, $8.80 may look like a bargain in the Future Wager. But as those who took 2-1 on Point Given and 5-2 on Empire Maker know all too well, it's not always quite that simple.