04/14/2005 12:00AM

Greater Good seeks respect

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Afleet Alex will attempt to prove his poor performance in the Rebel was an aberration in the Arkansas Derby.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - He has won the Southwest Stakes, just like Smarty Jones one year ago. He has won the Rebel Stakes, just like Smarty Jones one year ago. And, unlike Smarty Jones, he already has a victory at Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby.

With 5 victories in 7 starts, and a 4-for-4 record around two turns, Greater Good would seem to fit the mold of a top Kentucky Derby contender. And yet he will head into Saturday's Grade 2, $1 million at Oaklawn Park having been favored just once, and he might not even be favored this time. Bettors - including more than 60,000 expected to stuff themselves into this popular resort track - could be willing to give Afleet Alex a mulligan for his flop in the Rebel, in which Afleet Alex was 3-5, and Greater Good 9-2.

John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones last year and had hoped to run Rockport Harbor in this year's Arkansas Derby, can now look at the race with an unbiased view. He is puzzled that Greater Good has yet to catch on with the general public.

"He's the best-kept secret in the United States," Servis said at his Oaklawn barn. "He's the mirror image of Smarty in that he seems like he's improving every day, and he's quietly continuing to kick butt."

Greater Good will have to overcome the outside post 10 in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. The race appears to have little legitimate early speed, though Greater Good showed in the Rebel that he does not have to be a one-run closer.

"He can lay a lot closer," said his trainer, Bob Holthus. "As he's gotten older, he's gotten a lot stronger."

And, unlike his main rival, Afleet Alex, Greater Good has had a trouble-free season at Oaklawn.

"The horse hasn't missed a beat," said Holthus, who has captured nine training titles at Oaklawn and won the Arkansas Derby with Proper Reality in 1988. "We've been able to breeze every day we wanted to breeze."

Holthus is a 50-year veteran of Oaklawn. He is a soft-spoken horseman, one who is attuned to every nuance of his runners. Wednesday, a few hours before Greater Good was scheduled to have a schooling session, Holthus cautioned that Greater Good would get hot when he first arrived in the paddock, then settle down. Sure enough, that afternoon, Greater Good had sweat dripping off his belly soon after arriving in the paddock, but after a few minutes, he became calm.

"He's getting a little more aggressive," Holthus said. "During the second mile of his gallops, he wants to do something."

Afleet Alex is the other marquee name in the race, but he enters as something of a mystery. Afleet Alex has a stellar record, with victories in the Sanford and Hopeful stakes and second-place finishes in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes. But he is coming off the worst race of his career, when he finished last in the Rebel and emerged with a lung infection.

Afleet Alex has tended to lay just off the pace. With so little legitimate speed in this race, though, it might be tempting for Afleet Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose to seize the moment.

The other horses who could potentially be on or near the lead are Flower Alley, who won the Lane's End Stakes in his last start, and the maiden Canteen, though trainer Neil Drysdale wants that colt to have a target.

The Lane's End was run on a muddy track, but conditions at Oaklawn are expected to be ideal, with clear skies, temperatures in the 70's, and a fast main track.

That could enhance the chances of Andromeda's Hero, who finished fifth in the Lane's End while struggling with the muddy surface.

Wild Desert, who was a fast-closing second in the Lane's End, is making his third start off a layoff. He was compromised in the Fountain of Youth Stakes when he drew an outside post, and then was bumped sharply at the start. He switches to Patrick Valenzuela, and has the look of a very live longshot, though the pace may hinder his chances.

Rush Bay improved significantly when adding blinkers last time, and has trained strongly at Churchill Downs in the month since then.

Cat Shaker captured the Rushaway at Turfway Park, but on a muddy surface. Batson Challenge was third in the Rebel while using Lasix for the first time. Real Dandy was fifth in the Louisiana Derby over a speed-favoring track that neutralized his late run.

* The Arkansas Derby is the final leg of the Premier Pick Four, a $1 wager that also connects the Instant Racing BC Handicap at Oaklawn Park and the Commonwealth BC and Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. All four races will be televised on ESPN.

The field

Arkansas Derby
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1Batson ChallengeC. Borel11820-1
2Andromeda's HeroC. Nakatani12210-1
3CanteenV. Espinoza11815-1
4Rush BayE. Razo Jr.11812-1
5Flower AlleyJ. Chavez1224-1
6Afleet AlexJ. Rose1225-2
7Wild DesertP. Valenzuela1185-1
8Real DandyR. Chapa11820-1
9Cat ShakerJ. Bravo12230-1
10Greater GoodJ. McKee1225-2

* Odds by Vance Hanson
* Television: Saturday, 4:30-6:30 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN