04/28/2002 11:00PM

The Irish are going to school at this Derby

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NEW YORK - Foolishness, or arrogance?

There are a ton of questions surrounding Saturday's Kentucky Derby, many more than in a typical year. There are doubts about ability at the distance (Came Home), slow recent times (Came Home and Harlan's Holiday), scant preparation (Saarland and Proud Citizen), and inexperience (Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro), to mention just a few. But there is no more puzzling question than this: What are the connections of Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo thinking?

Is the Coolmore-Ballydoyle combination being downright foolish thinking it can win the Derby? Johannesburg's pedigree does not suggest success at 1 1/4 miles, and he would have lost his only start this year by open lengths had not the somewhat limited filly who defeated him have all sorts of trouble. Castle Gandolfo beat a suspect field in his only start this year. Or are the connections being arrogant by ignoring the lesson of the Arazi flop 10 years ago, and thinking that Derby history does not apply to them?

The answer is probably neither. The worldwide Coolmore operation of Michael Tabor and Mr. and Mrs. John Magnier has made winning the Kentucky Derby a primary goal in a less overt way than that other major international operation, Godolphin. Coolmore and the Ballydoyle training center of Aidan O'Brien are probably using this run at the Derby as a scouting mission, as Godolphin has. Godolphin has come a long way in only three years, from Worldly Manner, prepped in ineffective intramural practice races to the better-prepared and battle-tested Essence of Dubai, who many regard as a legitimate contender on Saturday.

Coolmore and Ballydoyle will learn a lot Saturday. How Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo perform will tell them, and us, how much it is they have to learn.

Beyers say Oaks fillies surpass Derby colts

The Kentucky Derby overshadows everything else this week, but I hope there is still room in the spotlight for the Kentucky Oaks, because this Oaks on Friday deserves it. Especially so, since a lot of people feel that the 3-year-old filly division may actually be superior to the males.

The origin of this notion dates back to Breeders' Cup Day at Belmont Park last fall, when Tempera ran considerably faster winning the Juvenile Fillies than Johannesburg did winning the Juvenile at the same distance. In fact, Imperial Gesture, who will go it alone in the Oaks for Godolphin now that Tempera has been euthanized, ran faster finishing second in the Juvenile Fillies than five expected Derby starters - Johannesburg, Came Home, Saarland, It'sallinthechase, and Essence of Dubai - did in the Juvenile. And it looks as if Imperial Gesture may even be better this year, judging from her two easy wins in Dubai.

Whether accurate or not, the idea that the 3-year-old fillies may be better than the colts gained further weight by the recent exploits of Take Charge Lady, who will be the favorite in the Oaks. Take Charge Lady has yet to be challenged this season, and each passing romp led to much speculation over whether she should take on males in the Derby. She has won her three starts at 3 by 8 1/2, 5 and 4 1/4 lengths, and in the process, she earned Beyer Speed Figures of 109, 107 and 109. No male in the Derby has run as fast at a distance, save War Emblem. And his 112 Beyer for winning the Illinois Derby was obviously a fluke since it was earned under optimal conditions; he was the lone speed through very slow fractions on a track he adores. No one in the Derby has, as of yet, put together three straight Beyers of the kind Take Charge Lady has.

Yet the best 3-year-old filly in the Oaks, I believe, is Bella Bellucci. She has lost only once in five career starts, when she was third in the Juvenile Fillies, and she ran a monstrous race that day. Bella Bellucci missed the break and was bumped, then rushed up on the decidedly dead rail, where she remained every step of the way. Through it all, Bella Bellucci was still in there punching in deep stretch before understandably fading.

If Bella Bellucci was ever vulnerable, it was in her first start this year, in the Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita. Barely wound up with big goals down the road and at a distance - 6 1/2 furlongs - far short of her best, Bella Bellucci showed a lot about her character by winning nonetheless. She then offered a tantalizing glimpse of what she's capable of in her last start, winning Aqueduct's Comely Stakes in overwhelming fashion and earning a 103 Beyer while keeping plenty in reserve.

Bella Bellucci has been crying for two turns, and she will finally get her first opportunity in a two-turn race on Friday. And if she does what I think she will do in the Oaks, she could leave her male counterparts in the Derby a lot to measure up to.