04/06/2004 12:00AM

In it for the money


LAS VEGAS - In a "normal" year, the Wood Memorial Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby are designed to be preps for the big prize, the Kentucky Derby.

Not this year.

Finishing a fast-closing third or fourth in these final Derby preps could have some of these 3-year-olds ready to run the race of their lives on May 1, but that might not be enough. Because of the 20-horse rule, there is an added urgency to finish first or second in the "Final Three" because many of these horses do not have sufficient earnings in graded races to get into the Derby, including Wood Memorial runners Eddington, Master David, and Tapit; Arkansas Derby favorite Smarty Jones and Borrego; and the Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, Mustanfar, who will run in the Blue Grass.

Despite the uncertainty of this year's participants, the Kentucky Derby is still a race usually won by a horse that can get 1 1/4 miles. But some of this year's most talked about 3-year-olds are Lion Heart (Blue Grass), Smarty Jones (Arkansas Derby) and Value Plus (Wood Memorial), and while they may win their final Derby preps at 1 1/8 miles, they are ill-suited to 1 1/4 miles.

Wood Memorial

With Value Plus and Sinister G setting a lively pace, Eddington should be in a perfect stalking position in the Wood Memorial, but he must prove that he is worthy of all the hype he has received and stave off Master David and Tapit.

Master David won the Sham Stakes in February and missed an expected start in the Florida Derby because of a temperature. A son of Grand Slam, he has already won at 1 1/8 miles, but the Kentucky Derby looks like a stretch.

Value Plus is the best racehorse in this field at seven furlongs, but 1 1/4 miles is a real concern.

Eddington and Tapit are the most talented colts in the Wood Memorial. Eddington, by Unbridled out of a Chief's Crown mare, has tactical speed and should run all day. Tapit, at a tremendous disadvantage running in the Florida Derby in only his third lifetime start and coming off a four-month layoff, was a tired animal and came back with mucus in his lungs. A healthy Tapit is very capable of winning the Wood, but trainer Michael Dickinson would be pleased with a strong finish to move him forward to the ultimate goal. Then again, there is the graded earnings question, and he may not qualify for the Derby even with a good third-place finish.

Arkansas Derby

Undefeated in five starts, Smarty Jones has gained respect with every race, but as a son of Elusive Quality out of a mare by Smile, he is hardly going to be at his best going 1 1/4 miles, and a likely victory in the Arkansas Derby would propel him as a very beatable Kentucky Derby favorite. Every year, there are horses like Smarty Jones who are able to carry their speed nine furlongs, but fizzled at 1 1/4 miles, including past Arkansas Derby winners Balto Star, Graeme Hall, and Zarb's Magic.

Borrego and Purge have the best chance of upsetting Smarty Jones. Borrego started his career on turf, and his last three races on dirt were quite promising. He finished second to Master David in the Sham and second to Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby. By El Prado (sire of Medaglia d'Oro), Borrego is out of a dam who is a half-sister to a Canadian champion, Truth of It All, and a stakes winner, I Aint Bluffing. Purge is by Pulpit, and his dam is a half-sister to sprinter Valid Wager as well as to the dam of a stakes winner, Jersey Girl. Purge's immediate female family has been very active for many decades, producing such notable runners as Foolish Pleasure and Valid Expectations.

Blue Grass

If ever a horse was tailor-made for a racetrack, it is Lion Heart for Keeneland. By Tale of the Cat, Lion Heart will find nine furlongs his absolute limit, but Keeneland is very generous to horses who possess Lion Heart's speed. The horses who may perform best over this track are not the horses who would be best at 1 1/4 miles. Lion Heart, Birdstone, and Limehouse have an edge at Keeneland, but Mustanfar and Action This Day are the colts who hold a huge advantage at 1 1/4 miles over a completely different surface.

Mustanfar, like Eddington, is by Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, who has sired the winners of all three Triple Crown races. He sired Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone in his first crop, as well as Preakness winner Red Bullet and last year's Belmont winner, Empire Maker. Mustanfar's second dam, Height of Fashion, is often thought of as Europe's greatest broodmare of the last 20 years. Her foals include Group 1 winners Nashwan, Unfuwain, Alwasmi, and Nayef. There is no other 3-year-old who has the combination of such stamina and class, but Mustanfar must finish first or second to have enough graded earnings.

The much-maligned Action This Day certainly has enough earnings following his Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory, and a strong finish is all that is necessary to make him one of the horses to beat in the Kentucky Derby. By Kris S. out of a mare by Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, Trempolino, Action This Day was born to thrive at 1 1/4 miles.