05/06/2002 12:00AM

Give me the smackdowns of yesteryear

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Call this one the Cream Puff Derby, the day the Run for the Roses turned into the Waltz of the Flowers. Brass bands and bourbon were wasted on this race. Next time, bring a string quartet and serve tea.

What happened to initiative, aggression, and good-old fashioned race-riding? Nobody wants a wreck, but how about breaking a sweat? This could not have been the same full-blooded American classic that gave us Don Meade and Herb Fisher in the 1933 smackdown, Jean Cruguet and Seattle Slew muscling through a keyhole in 1977, or the mosh pit of 1999 that devoured General Challenge and Three Ring.

Eighteen of the best saddled up for the 128th Kentucky Derby last Saturday, and 17 of them basically said "Ole!" to the handsome pair of Victor Espinoza and War Emblem, leaving them to play alone on a pace that could have been clocked with a sundial.

How much does pace make the race, especially a race over a longer distance of ground? In the 2001 Derby, the leaders arrived at the half more than two seconds earlier than War Emblem did this time around, as Espinoza himself can testify. His 2001 mount, Congaree, was consumed by the chase and still managed to finish a brave third to Monarchos.

And since horses are not machines (they are not even reliable as animals), two seconds can mean 12 lengths worth of oxygen for a horse trying to wire the field. Jerry Bailey, freshly dismounted from 12th-place Castle Gandolfo, tried to keep the concept simple.

"Pace is the race," he said.

"I knew the race was over going into the first turn," said Kent Desormeaux, whose comfortable chair in the jockeys' room was moving only slightly slower than War Emblem through the first half mile.

Desormeaux lost his mount that morning when Danthebluegrassman was scratched. As a result, the two-time Derby winner had a catbird's view of the following rare phenomena:

* Gary Stevens, riding Johannesburg to instructions, leaving the Derby starting gate like a choirboy, hands and voice quiet.

* Mike Smith, who never met a pace he couldn't press, camped behind War Emblem on Proud Citizen like an Airstream being pulled by a pickup.

* Eddie Delahoussaye, who figured to spend most of the race in a crowd, cruising along in third early with Perfect Drift and wondering if he had the right race.

"I couldn't believe it," Delahoussaye said, shaking his head. "I was saying to myself, 'Jeez, where they all at?' "

With everyone apparently on the same page, the Derby unfolded without interior drama. Delahoussaye called it the cleanest of the 13 he has ridden. Stevens agreed.

"Actually, I was not nearly aggressive enough for me," Stevens added. "It didn't fit my riding style at all."

The only voice raised in protest belonged to Laffit Pincay Jr., who was in the gate and all set to rock and roll aboard Medaglia d'Oro when his colt reached down to scratch an itch.

"Wait! Wait!" Pincay screamed. But it was too late. The doors popped open and Medaglia d'Oro lumbered left, making brief but crucial contact with Essence of Dubai. Pincay's colt did well to finish fourth.

"Definitely, it made a difference," Pincay said. "There I am behind, in traffic, going slow. When I could finally let him run, everybody was gone."

It was 1985 all over again, when Eternal Prince missed the break and let Spend a Buck take complete control. It was also reminiscent of 1988, when Stevens needed to nurse Winning Colors farther than she wanted to go and was granted a free pass for the first half-mile by Pat Day on Forty Niner, among others.

"I was happy where I was at," said Mike Smith, who rode Proud Citizen. He had no desire to play the sacrificial lamb.

"It's not often you get the opportunity to go along as you please," Smith went on. "And I know if I go, he goes" - War Emblem, that is - "which could have been for the worse. The thing was, my horse was handling the ground very well. But every time I looked over at the leader, he was handling the ground extremely well."

As a result, it was Victor who got the spoils, four lengths clear at the end. Espinoza is 29, a fitness freak, and a certified free spirit who once colored his hair gold before riding - and winning - his first Hollywood Gold Cup.

"I thought about dying my hair red for the Derby," he said. "But I didn't have time." He had to settle for his natural dark brown, which went well with his horse.

Late on Derby Day, under escort from Churchill Downs security personnel, Espinoza autographed his way through the lingering crowd to the winners' party at the Derby Museum. Once inside, he stopped chewing a snack long enough to watch the spectacular movie-in-the-round.

As the film built to its climax, with highlights from 2001, Espinoza's eyes widened at the sight of Congaree leading deep in the stretch before giving way. The security guard whispered in his ear.

"Next year, that will be you up there."

In lonely splendor.