10/05/2006 12:00AM

Goodwood looks too deep for Brother Derek

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Improving 3-year-olds are always dangerous when they creep from the safety of age-restricted races and square off against tough and seasoned older rivals.

While the barrier can be severe, genuine top-class 3-year-olds handle the challenge every autumn in the world's best races. In these defining races, top 3-year-olds emerge as elite, irrespective of age.

It happened twice last weekend, on different sides of the world. The 3-year-old Wait a While trounced older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita; Rail Link upset older rivals the next day, winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France.

The trend may continue Saturday. Two brilliant 3-year-olds start favored at Belmont in Grade 1 races against older - Bernardini against only three rivals in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Henny Hughes in the seven-furlong Vosburgh. And at Keeneland, good 3-year-old European Aussie Rules looms a contender in the Grade 1 Shadwell Mile.

While dazzling recent wins by Bernardini and Henny Hughes indicate both will be tough to beat in New York, and Aussie Rules fits on class in Kentucky, the picture is different in California.

Brother Derek has never lost at Santa Anita, but he faces a tall order against Lava Man and company in the Grade 2 Goodwood Handicap. Although Brother Derek would not be the first 3-year-old to beat older rivals in fall at Santa Anita - Tiznow won the Goodwood in 2000 - this year it would be a surprise.

By the time he won the Goodwood, Tiznow already had done two things Brother Derek has yet to achieve - run fast, and run well against older. Tiznow earned Beyer Figures of 115 and 114 going into the Goodwood; his runner-up finish two months earlier in the Pacific Classic established Tiznow as a worthy combatant of any age.

Furthermore, the median Beyer Figure by Goodwood winners the past 10 years is 110. Brother Derek has not come close to that number since a soft-trip 108 he earned in the Santa Anita Derby. Beyond speed figures, Brother Derek falls short on pace and current form.

The seeming decline can be traced to Brother Derek's last win, back in April. It was the Santa Anita Derby, when he coasted on an easy pace and won by more than three lengths. But the pace figure that he earned was well below par, and he failed to show his speed finishing fourth with a wide trip in the Kentucky Derby.

Two subsequent starts by Brother Derek were a fourth-place finish in the Preakness, and a fourth-place comeback in an age-restricted, ungraded stakes at Del Mar. He earned an 89 Beyer in each start. Where has the old Brother Derek gone?

It is true that the colt has picked up the tempo in recent workouts at Santa Anita, and the Goodwood would be an opportune time for Brother Derek to return to form. But from a pure handicapping perspective, it is difficult to support Brother Derek in his first start against older foes.

In order for a 3-year-old to succeed in fall while racing outside his division, his form must be improving and he must have run reasonably close to par in a recent race. Brother Derek enters the Goodwood with neither attribute.

It was only six months ago that Brother Derek was the darling of California, and deservedly so. But until he offers evidence, beyond fast works, that he belongs in a Grade 2 race against older, Brother Derek cannot be supported in any position in the Goodwood.

Little things could add up against Lava Man

Meanwhile, there is the odds-on favorite to consider in the Goodwood. And the question begs - is it possible Lava Man is vulnerable? Frustrated bettors who have tried to beat him all year are obligated to try again, just on principle.

Make no mistake. Lava Man should win the Goodwood at a short price. But that is the problem - his odds will be short. It is virtually impossible to get a fair price on a fast horse as consistent as Lava Man. He shows up every time; his tactical speed ensures he always is in command of his own trip.

But value-minded bettors trying to find vulnerability need not look far. Lava Man is backing up from a series of races at a mile and a quarter to a mile and an eighth. It probably is no big deal.

Lava Man's last two starts have been weight-for-age. In the Goodwood Handicap, he concedes at least eight pounds. It probably is no big deal. His last two starts at Santa Anita included a Santa Anita Handicap win by a diminishing margin of three-quarters of a length, and a restricted race in which he earned a 99 Beyer. Perhaps it is no big deal.

Lava Man should win the Goodwood anyway. After all, he is the best horse. But if Preachinatthebar utilizes all of his speed while in receipt of nine pounds, the front-running gray has a longshot chance to wire the field at a double-digit payoff.