04/23/2004 12:00AM

How Derby unfolds signals its winner

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PHOENIX - This year's Derby is wonderfully confusing. It gives us a chance to use every club in the bag. We've been worried about Beyer Speed Figures, visual impressions, regional strength, pedigree, potential odds, you name it. But when a scenario comes up as muddled as this Derby appears to be, it's best to go back to Handicapping 101 and handicap the race as you think it will play out.

I have no idea who will win the Derby, but upon examination of the potential shape of the race I have an idea from where I think the Derby winner will emerge. And as my Daily Racing Form colleague Brad Free pointed out in his column last week, any discussion about the Derby race-shape begins with Lion Heart.

After all, Lion Heart can likely dictate how this race plays out. I don't necessarily view Lion Heart the same as, say, Winning Colors or Spend a Buck or Go for Gin. They were sustained gallopers; Lion Heart's a fast horse. I have little doubt he's the quickest one in the Derby, and can make the lead if he so chooses. What I do have doubts about are whether he wants to go the Derby 1 1/4 miles, and how much trouble comes his way in furlongs 6, 7, and 8.

Lion Heart reminds me of More Than Ready or Afternoon Deelites or Lil's Lad - naturally fast horses who were not at their best going this far. Beyond that, while Lion Heart may not get early pressure, he's going to get severe mid-race pressure. It's likely that Limehouse, Sinister G, and Pollard's Vision aren't quick enough to keep up with him. But they are quick enough to make Lion Heart use his speed to clear the field. Certainly, if Value Plus goes, he's quick enough. But those horses aren't Lion Heart's major obstacles. To me, his obstacles are Smarty Jones and Read the Footnotes. These are horses who are quick enough to get position, and they're not likely to wait until the top of the stretch to move. They're going to go after Lion Heart with a half-mile to go, maybe earlier. So even if Lion Heart avoids early pressure, things will heat up for him by the far turn.

As far as early movers such as Smarty Jones and Read the Footnotes, or even Limehouse, are concerned, I have issues with that style, too. They're likely going to have to use energy to maintain position and keep Lion Heart in their sights. Then they're going to use fuel to go get him and try to get by him. So, as with Lion Heart, they're then left with the daunting task of staving off a closer with plenty of ground to go. Beaten Derby horses Jaklin Klugman, Indian Charlie, Cavonnier, Favorite Trick, and Peace Rules all come to mind.

So we're looking for a deep closer, right? Well, not necessarily. A deep closer is at the mercy of traffic. Imperialism may pack a wallop, but Derby history is littered with beaten deep closers such as Rampage, Rumbo, Victory Gallop, Menifee, Easy Goer and Woodchopper - horses that were rolling but had too much left to do.

Then there are the grinders. Master David and Borrego certainly have ability, but when they've lost it has been because other horses either got away from them or they couldn't accelerate quickly enough to offset another horse's run.

The Cliff's Edge? His Blue Grass win was a beaut, but it was so out of the norm in terms of his Beyers I'm almost willing to take a stand against him, particularly since I think he may be favored.

Master David, Borrego and The Cliff's Edge also lack instant acceleration, and that is the most crucial aspect of a Derby winner. You need a horse who, when the hole opens up, can blast through. You need a horse who can accelerate into position on the turn (like Alysheba, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Monarchos did) and still have another gear that can take them through furlongs 8, 9, and 10.

Only three horses strike me as being that way: Tapit, Wimbledon, and Castledale.

Tapit might be the most gifted horse of the bunch. His Laurel Futurity win was remarkable and it belied his youth and inexperience. He showed in the Wood Memorial that he has the oomph to get into the race on the far turn and another gear to bring it home. Wimbledon's Santa Anita Derby effort wasn't much as a Derby prep, but trainer Bob Baffert's Derby winners, Real Quiet and Silver Charm, lost their Derby preps as well. In the Louisiana Derby, Wimbledon showed enough acceleration to get into the race on the far turn and then to maintain it in the lane.

Same thing with Castledale. While his dirt debut in March wasn't pretty, it was his first start in five months. His Santa Anita Derby, however, was excellent, and he showed the right traits.

I don't know which region has the best 3-year-olds. I don't know which prep was the strongest or visually the most impressive. I'm going back to basics, and the way I see this Derby coming up is that it's going to be won by a horse who can settle, avoid using energy early, accelerate into the race on the turn, and sustain that run through to the wire. For me, that's one of these three, and with a week to go, I'm thinking about a $240 (3x5x7x7) superfecta swing:

Wimbledon/Tapit/Castledale over Wimbledon/Tapit/Castledale/Master David/Imperialism over Wimbledon/Tapit/Castledale/Master David/Imperialism/Borrego/Smarty Jones over Wimbledon/Tapit/Castledale/Master David/Imperialism/Borrego/Smarty Jones.