03/14/2005 1:00AM

High Limit has plenty more to prove


NEW ORLEANS - High Limit may well be a very nice horse, and a serious contender for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. But if he is, Saturday's at Fair Grounds did not prove it.

That may seem like a silly statement after High Limit drew away in the stretch to become the first horse in 15 years to win the Louisiana Derby leading from gate to wire. He also stretched his undefeated streak to three, increased the total margin of his victories to 22 1/2 lengths, earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 105, and did it all while coming off a five-month layoff.

But there is still some skepticism from this corner, at this point in time, anyway, over whether High Limit has suddenly become a major force in the Derby picture. It would be a lot easier to feel better about him if one of the other prominent members of the Louisiana Derby field ran so much as one step. None did, however, meaning that whether or not it is fair to High Limit, the $600,000 stepping-stone to the Triple Crown that he won Saturday can only be classified as inconclusive.

Scipion, the second choice in the Louisiana Derby betting to High Limit, hardly got a call. He trailed early, as is his wont, but only passed horses that were even more ineffective than him, and only well past the point of it mattering, to finish a dull sixth. Kansas City Boy, the third choice in the betting, held good early position, but surrendered meekly, garnering the dubious distinction of being the only one involved in the early pace to be nowhere at the finish. And Sort It Out, who finished behind Kansas City Boy in eighth, ran as if trainer Bob Baffert's original idea of giving him time off was the right one.

Adding further weight to the notion that this Louisiana Derby was short on substance was the fact that Vicarage chased High Limit all the way around the track. Now, young 3-year-olds like these can often jump up and run a big race at any time. But in his prior two stakes attempts, Vicarage was clobbered in the Sapling last summer, and was a thoroughly whipped third in the Hutcheson last month. In both of those stakes, Vicarage gave ground at every call. Those were one-turn races, and this was a two-turn test. Vicarage may be the 10th-best 3-year-old in Todd Pletcher's barn. And, how often do you see a Pletcher-trained horse go off at 21-1 in a race like this, as Vicarage did Saturday? Yet, he was second best, and easily so.

Those who disagree with this conclusion would say that it is not High Limit's fault that no one else showed up Saturday to compete with him, and he should not be penalized for that. That's a fair position to take. But the point is, what happened in the Louisiana Derby is not reason enough to build a shrine to High Limit. Let's see what happens when a genuine Derby prospect takes a serious run at him when he appears next, probably in the April 9 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct - which would put him on a schedule going into Louisville of having a race every four weeks - or possibly in the April 16 Blue Grass at Keeneland. If he responds by winning the same way he did Saturday, then we can go gaga over him.

Pace handed race to Summerly on a platter

Unfortunately, impressions of Summerly's victory in Saturday's also have to be tempered. In this instance, the reason was pace, or more precisely, the complete lack of it. Summerly was able to establish a clear, uncontested lead through trotting-horse fractions of 24.45 seconds, 49.04, and 1:13.37, considerably slower than the fractions of 23.56, 47.36, and 1:11.85 that High Limit posted two races earlier going the same distance.

In Summerly's case, she showed that she doesn't need such an enormous strategical advantage when she won the Silverbulletday last month after rating just off a faster pace. But when an improving, in-form filly like her is given the kind of edge she got Saturday, an edge that was tantamount to a huge head start, she is supposed to win as big as she did.

Badge of Silver unfazed by fast fractions

Conversely, there was no cause for reservation and certainly nothing cheap about Badge of Silver's terrifically game score in the . In response to the belief that speed was holding Saturday at Fair Grounds, Badge of Silver was sent right out for the early lead, showing no fear of engaging in an unavoidable speed duel with Wanderin Boy.

Those two battled through debilitating early fractions of 22.66 and 45.55, and it looked like both were cooked when Second of June and Pollard's Vision moved strongly to them on the far turn. Wanderin Boy did run out of gas in upper stretch, but Badge of Silver somehow re-broke, and opened up a clear lead he would not relinquish. In the process, he enhanced his status in the handicap division, and gives owner Ken Ramsey a means to stay in action in big handicap events here while his top handicap horse, Roses in May, gets the recovery time he will need after the March 26 Dubai World Cup.