01/31/2002 1:00AM

A hint of spring turns thoughts to Derby


JAMAICA, N.Y. - Recent record-breaking weather in the New York metropolitan area made for some unusual occurrences as the mercury officially reached 69.5 degrees, the warmest temperature ever recorded on Long Island in January.

Plants that normally are dormant during the dead of winter were fooled into sneaking a peek out of their protective buds.

Golf clubs and baseball mitts were retrieved from the backs of garages, while skis, sleds, and shovels collected dust.

Short-sleeved denizens of the Aqueduct grandstand asked who I liked for the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

"Gimme your real picks, Dave!"

"Absolutely no real picks yet. See me in about 10 weeks."

Though the warm weather incubated cases of spring fever and made it seem so much closer, the Kentucky Derby is still three whole months away. That might as well be a lifetime considering all the obstacles that can stymie Derby-meant colts from now until then.

The first faint rustlings on the New York circuit take place in next Saturday's 1 1/16-mile Whirlaway Stakes, an ungraded $75,000-added event that hasn't exactly been a hotbed of Classic contenders.

But Prairie Bayou, ill-fated winner of the 1993 Whirlaway, won an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old for running second in the Derby and winning the Preakness, so to dismiss out of hand the chances of an Aqueduct "winter horse" would be premature at this point. Also remember that 2001 Spiral and Arkansas Derby winner Balto Star, a major component of the Kentucky Derby's sizzling pace, ran three times on Aqueduct's inner track last winter and didn't advance through his entry-level allowance condition until Feb. 18.

By the time spring rolls around for real, the top 3-year-olds in the land might be expected to run Beyer Speed Figures approaching 110 or better, and Quirin-style pace and speed figures in a similar range.

A look at the leading Whirlaway probables and their recent exploits suggests they are well removed from those standards at this point, as might be expected. But judging from their figures it promises to be a highly competitive race:

D'Coach: Earned Quirin-style figures of 101-102 for his rallying runner-up finish in the Count Fleet. His second-place allowance Dec. 7 was a 98-103.

Eye of the Comet: New York-bred is questionable at this point, having been idle since running a 102-103 in his 19-1 upset of the Damon Runyon on Dec. 16.

Lord ofthe Thunder: Originally targeted for the Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 17, but his connections have called an audible and opted to keep him on Aqueduct's inner-dirt track, where two open-lengths wins against statebred sophomores received marks of 96-102 and 93-100. He should get a considerably sterner test through the early going of the Whirlaway.

Saratoga Blues: Laurel-based colt ran a 100-107 wiring an entry-level allowance here Dec. 20 for Anthony Dutrow, a trainer whose 25-for-55 record in stakes races (45 percent winners!) the past 13 months is truly phenomenal.

Smoked Em: Last year it was Balto Star. This year, Todd Pletcher's New York sleeper could be Smoked Em, whose maiden and entry-level allowance wins on the inner track were good for figs of 101-104 and 100-103.

Storm Commander: A sprinter so far, he ran 103-102 for a six-furlong maiden win Jan. 6, which was his ninth try.

In terms of how New York-based 3-year-olds compare with their brethren from other circuits, they have some catching up to do.

The Santa Catalina was mentioned in this space last week as a 101-109.

Last week's Lecomte at Fair Grounds, which Easyfromthegitgo won by a nose as a slight 2-1 favorite over Sky Terrace, came up an unremarkable 105-102.

Notable 3-year-old performances at Gulfstream include the following:

Booklet: Front-running winner of the Holy Bull, pace and speed 106-107.

Maybry's Boy: Opening-day winner of the six-furlong Spectacular Bid, running 103-108. Will he have the same late kick stretching out?

Stephentown: The bandwagon is filling up after his 102-104 for an entry-level allowance route win under a hand ride on Jan. 9.

Grey Beard: 100-105 for winning the second division of the Jan. 9 allowance.

Final Table: Ran a quick 106-106 wiring a first-level allowance sprint off an October layoff. Pedigree seems questionable at a route.

Hit the Trail: Fast-working universal good-thing was pounded to 3-2 for unveiling on the Holy Bull undercard, and wired six-furlong maidens in 106-105, despite racing a bit greenly.

Speed Hunter: Got a perfect pace setup, and ran a 101-107 for his seven-furlong allowance win later on the Holy Bull card.

Governor Hickel: Nick Zito-trained colt by Gulch was up late for half-length score in preliminary allowance on Jan. 25, pace and speed figures of 104-105.

High Star: Another from Zito. Convincing allowance winner, 106-106, Jan. 26.

I thought that by combing through my New York charts and DRF Simulcast Weeklies a clearer picture might emerge, even at this early date. With so many horses running similar figures, though, that hardly proved to be the case.

To compound this state of affairs, winter is back in town as of Thursday evening, and a freezing drizzle coats my windshield. To my chagrin, neither a pitching wedge nor a putter seems to scrape away the ice as efficiently as my ice scraper, but the pitching wedge and putter are what's sitting on the back seat, and I haven't a clue as to where the scraper might be.