02/10/2005 12:00AM

Here's a 3-year-old who can go the distance

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Galloping Grocer's distance rating of 352 for 1 1/4 miles is decent for this Derby crop.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - As we ponder the possibilities for Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Futures, a line from one of Jim Quinn's many fine handicapping books is the first thing that comes to mind:

"Pedigree plus performance gets the roses."

That was sage advice back in the good old days, but after watching the road to Louisville unfold for the last few years, the best course of action might be amended as follows:

Pick one of the fastest performers and let it go at that.

Because the Derby is the most coveted race in the world, a 3-year-old automatically takes on a special aura the moment he crosses the wire in front, whether by a nose or a country mile. The Derby winner must be a great horse, because isn't greatness a prerequisite to flirt with immortality in the most exciting two minutes in sports?

Most ordinary citizens assume that to be so, but racetrackers know it is seldom the case.

Going back chronologically through the most recent Derby winners, we have the likes of Real Quiet, who had lost in New Mexico; Charismatic, who had run in claiming races; Fusaichi Pegasus, whose only subsequent win was the Jerome Handicap; Monarchos, who never won again; War Emblem, by way of Sportsman's Park; the game and likeable New York-bred gelding Funny Cide; and the Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, the pride of Philadelphia Park and perhaps the best Derby winner in a long time, who was whisked off to stud before he could prove it.

With each passing year it becomes more and more apparent that the days of the "classic profile" have all but faded from the game's rear-view mirror. The Derby winner can and does come from anywhere, and from any kind of background. Anything goes.

About the only thing the last seven Derby winners did have in common was a recent Beyer Speed Figure qualifying them as among the fastest in the field - in some cases the fastest, as with War Emblem, whose 112 Beyer in the Illinois Derby was ignored by just about everyone, including Andy Beyer himself.

Find a miler or middle-distance runner who is just plain fast, give that horse a tactical advantage such as a good trip or a speed-favoring wet track, and he can get the 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs. At least, he can in this day and age of watered-down talent and brittle-footed Thoroughbreds who can stand no more than two prep races before the big day.

If you're still looking at pedigree in hopes of trying to find a futures bet at this early stage, there is much to be learned this weekend. Of the 23 single entries, no fewer than three of the four top-rated runners in terms of the Tomlinson Distance Ratings are scheduled to see stakes action: Galloping Grocer will be favored in Aqueduct's Whirlaway, and at Fair Grounds, Harlington and Rush Bay are among the leading contenders in the Risen Star.

The distance ratings are similar to the Tomlinson wet-track and turf ratings, in that they range from 0 to 480, with a rating of around 320 considered average. But unlike the wet-track and turf ratings, the distance ratings depend on the distance at which the horse is entered today. You'll see, for example, that Harlington, by Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled (and out of a Kentucky Derby pacesetter, Serena's Song), is rated at 398 for the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, but gets only a 350 for the Kentucky Derby distance.

A $2.8 million colt, Harlington is certainly a finalist in the fashionable-pedigree contest, being a half-brother to two stakes winners, including Sophisticat, winner of the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at age 3.

The New York-bred gelding Galloping Grocer is from more humble beginnings, a la Funny Cide, but is already a proven commodity after a highly promising juvenile campaign. He is rated at 352 for 1 1/4 miles, but there is limited data on the offspring of his sire, A. P Jet, who was the fifth-leading New York-bred sire in 2004 but is primarily regarded as a speed influence.

Rush Bay, who improved his Beyer Figures each time out last fall, has a distance rating of 351 for 1 1/4 miles, virtually identical to those of Harlington and Galloping Grocer.

There is a noticeable drop in the ratings after that trio: Roman Ruler is next at 333, followed by the filly Sweet Catomine at 330 and Bandini at 327. The rest are below the average barometer of 320.

The top-rated horse for the Kentucky Derby distance, wouldn't you know, is the freaky fast sprinter who isn't even nominated to the Triple Crown races - yet.

Yes, believe it or not, Lost in the Fog, the half-brother to two-time sprint winners Frankie Francis and How About My Place, towers over the Pool 1 Derby Futures field with a Tomlinson Distance Rating of 384.

"I let the numbers do the talking," said no less an authority on the ratings than Lee Tomlinson, when asked how handicappers should evaluate Lost in the Fog. "If he's got a 384, I don't care what his past performances look like. The numbers are telling me a good part of the story."

Somehow, you get the feeling that the Lost in the Fog story is just getting under way.