05/05/2002 11:00PM

Give winner credit, but assist goes to the bias


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As the field for the Kentucky Derby passed the stands for the first time, I turned to reporter Mike Welsch and shouted above the din, "Look where Blue Burner is!" Welsch turned to me and shouted, "Look where Perfect Drift is!"

It was at that point - before the field even turned into the first turn, with War Emblem just coasting along on the lead - that I sensed the unexpected was about to happen. With an off-the-pace runner like Perfect Drift and a downtown closer like Blue Burner only two lengths off the early lead, I thought we were in serious danger of seeing the first wire-to-wire winner of the Kentucky Derby in 14 years.

I know it has been said so often that it has almost become a cliche, but pace does make the race. Every race. And pace was unquestionably the story of Saturday's 128th Kentucky Derby.

On the face of it, this Derby's quarter-mile split of 23.25 seconds and the half-mile fraction of 47.04 may seem honest enough for a 1 1/4-mile race, but those fractions have to be taken in context. As usual, the Churchill Downs main track on Derby Day was conducive to fast times. In the races that preceded the Derby, especially the quality ones, quarter-miles were consistently in the 22's and halfs were run in 44 to the low 45's. So, when you consider that the first quarter-mile of the Derby is run entirely down a straightaway, and was run Saturday with a breeze at the field's back, you can understand that War Emblem was walking on the front end early. Could it be the jockeys who rode in the Derby were overcompensating for what happened in last year's Derby, when there was a destructive early pace?

You know what else makes the race? The nature of the track. Churchill's track on Saturday was very kind, if not outright biased, toward on- and with-the-pace horses. Every winner on the dirt Saturday at Churchill was on the lead or right with the leaders. A perfect example of this was Saturday's fourth race, the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap. Snow Ridge went to the lead and was hounded by Accelerant. These two drew away from the rest of the field by nearly eight lengths around the far turn, and when the outclassed Accelerant finally peeled away, Snow Ridge somehow kept going and held on (though he was subsequently disqualified for a whip infraction). It's not often you see a horse run like Snow Ridge did.

And consider the Kentucky Derby points of call on the running lines from five of the first six finishers:






I could go on, because there are other similar running lines in the chart. There was remarkably little movement during the course of the running, especially for a 1 1/4-mile race. This would never be the case unless pace and the nature of the racing surface played a huge role.

While nothing can take away this Derby victory from War Emblem's new connections, the question now is, where do we go from here? Some handicappers just want to draw a line through the Derby, but that wouldn't be entirely fair to War Emblem, who, despite the benefit of the pace and racing surface, still completed his last quarter-mile in then Derby in a solid 24.43. Still, I'd like to see how War Emblem performs when subjected to a real pace over an honest surface. If he still wins, then he deserves all the credit. But until then . . .

A couple of other Derby weekend thoughts:

* The only horse who did any kind of appreciable running in the Derby against the pace and the trend of the racing surface was fourth-place finisher Medaglia d'Oro. He had a less- than-perfect start, had some slight traffic trouble, and still managed to work his way forward from 10th at the first call. Considering his inexperience, he merits another chance.

* Proud Citizen may have chased War Emblem all around the track, but since he had only two prior starts this year and seemed to be a need-the-lead type, he was very game.

* In the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Beat Hollow won the strongest turf race run in North America this year, and was very impressive. Still, With Anticipation ran a great race, finishing second after being farther back early than he prefers.

* After watching the Kentucky Oaks, I'm convinced Bella Bellucci, who was withdrawn because of an unacceptable pre-race blood test, would have won by about five, and by more if she was in the peak of health.