05/04/2009 12:00AM

I Want Revenge a clear stand-out

Barbara D. Livingston
Pioneerof the Nile?s ability to transfer his synthetic-track form to dirt is a question that might not be worth the risk at morning-line odds of just 4-1.

NEW YORK - The field for the 135th Kentucky Derby is light on the top and heavy on the bottom, leaving horseplayers either to choose among the four favorites who will dominate the betting or to stretch their imaginations to the limit making cases for the members of an unusually unaccomplished supporting cast.

The Derby Week defections of Quality Road, who would have been co-favored to win the race, and the live longshots Square Eddie and Win Willy stripped the race of some of its intrigue but also made it a clearer proposition to this handicapper. I thought two colts separated themselves from their competition this spring with a pair of breakout victories each: Quality Road in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and I Want Revenge in the Gotham and Wood Memorial. With Quality Road now sidelined, I Want Revenge simply looks like a standout to me.

His virtues are obvious. He's the only horse in the race who has won a Grade 1 race on dirt; his winning Beyer Speed Figure of 113 in the Gotham victory is tops in the field; and while he won the Gotham by pressing the pace, he showed stylistic versatility and the ability to overcome adversity by working his way through the field to win the Wood after a disastrous start.

Any skepticism surrounding him stems from his record before those two big victories. I Want Revenge won just 1 of his first 6 starts and twice finished behind Pioneerof the Nile. Those races, however, were run on synthetic tracks in southern California, surfaces over which I Want Revenge did not appear to extend himself and that his connections say did not suit him. His explosive improvement once he was sent east and switched to dirt certainly seems to confirm that opinion.

Pioneerof the Nile is a consistent and accomplished colt, but it's a complete guess as to whether he'll show similar improvement when he tries dirt for the first time Saturday. Taking just 4-1 to find out strikes me as extremely poor value. He has won four straight Grade 1 or 2 stakes races on synthetic footing, but by only a combined 2 3/4 lengths and without a Beyer higher than a 96. Four years ago, Giacomo was widely dismissed as "too slow" to win the Derby but had run faster figures than that.

That was before California installed its synthetic tracks, and debate has raged ever since as to whether conventional final-time ratings are as meaningful on these new tracks, where the races tend to be run with milder paces and end with closer and more bunched-up finishes - similar to a great deal of grass racing. While there is some merit to this viewpoint, and it pays to keep an open and nonliteral mind, grass horses with career-best Beyers of 96 rarely win Grade 1 races, much less classics, on any surface.

Dunkirk is a more appealing second choice to me, though it's hard to argue there's much value in taking 4-1 or 5-1 on a horse making his fourth career start and still seeking his first stakes victory. On the other hand, Big Brown was a 5-2 Derby winner last year in just his fourth career start, and maybe this will emerge as the Derby blueprint of the 21st century. This field looks tougher, but Dunkirk's sweeping move on the far turn of the Florida Derby was an exhilarating moment, perhaps a sign of something really special still to come. He'll have to take another step forward Saturday, and under much tougher conditions than he has seen yet, but maybe he's just that good.

Friesan Fire rounds out the quartet of favorites. He's clearly talented and has won three straight stakes races, but all were in Louisiana, none was at more than 1 1/16 miles, and he comes into this race off an unusual seven-week layoff.

There's a big dropoff in accomplishment after the top four. The co-fifth choices at 15-1 on the morning line are Desert Party, who hasn't won beyond a mile and couldn't get by his pacesetter last time out in Dubai, and Hold Me Back, beaten 14 lengths in his only start on dirt. Everyone else is 20-1 and up, and it's the first Derby I can remember with as many as six 50-1 shots on the morning line - and deservedly so. If I were stabbing for longshots among the 14 horses listed at 20-1 or higher, I would take General Quarters and Papa Clem, who at least have cracked the triple-digit Beyer plateau winning graded stakes on the dirt.

So let's call it I Want Revenge, Dunkirk, General Quarters, and Papa Clem in that order; the latter two may be less likely winners than Friesan Fire and Pioneerof the Nile, but they'll be triple the price. If, however, I Want Revenge runs back to his last two races, and Dunkirk fulfills the potential he has shown, I expect to see one of those two wearing the roses late Saturday afternoon.