04/01/2004 12:00AM

A jinx is a jinx, except when it's not

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NEW YORK - The race is clearly accursed. The horse who ends up in the winner's circle is an automatic throwout in the Kentucky Derby. It has worked 11 times in a row, so it must be true. You could look it up.

We must be talking about the dreaded Juvenile Jinx, the theory that success in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile spells failure in the Kentucky Derby, a hypothesis so widely accepted that it prompted several perfectly healthy top 2-year-olds to be held out of last year's Juvenile. Actually, today's bit of statistical witchcraft is the equally scientific California Curse, the Hillside Hoodoo, the West Coast Whammy.

Simply put, no Santa Anita Derby winner has gone on to win the roses in Kentucky since Sunday Silence in 1989. Since then, 11 Santa Anita Derby winners have tried and failed, greater than the number of Juvenile winners that have even run for the roses. Given that a key Derby prep a month before the main event should be more predictive than a juvenile race six months earlier, this hex clearly trumps that jinx.

The scroll of the doomed began in 1990 with Mister Frisky, who ran eighth in Kentucky. Dinard in 1991 and A.P. Indy in 1992 didn't make it to the Churchill Downs gate, nor did Larry the Legend in 1995. Of the rest who ran in Louisville, Personal Hope finished fourth in 1993, followed by Brocco (fourth in 1994), Cavonnier (second in 1996), Free House (third in 1997), Indian Charlie (third in 1998), General Challenge (11th in 1999), The Deputy (14th in 2000), Point Given (fifth in 2001), Came Home (sixth in 2002), and Buddy Gil (sixth in 2003). No wonder Lion Heart and Action This Day are headed to Kentucky for the Blue Grass instead of running on the bewitched ground of their home court.

Just because this exercise in sorcery holds up briefly on paper just as well as the Juvenile Jinx does not make it any more meaningful or less silly. It ignores that Cavonnier missed by a fraction of a lip, that Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 won the roses after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby, and that Point Given clearly was the best 3-year-old of 2001. All four of those were trained by Bob Baffert, as is Wimbledon, the morning-line favorite for Saturday's 70th Santa Anita Derby.

Wiseguy handicappers are looking to beat Wimbledon because he took six tries to escape the maiden ranks, and then won a moderate Louisiana Derby with a perfect trip behind a scorching pace that set up perfectly for him. He's no bargain as the favorite, but he does seem to be getting good at the right time, and it's not as if there are tremendously compelling alternatives in the field.

Five of the seven entrants are listed between 5-2 and 5-1, a microcosm of the national Derby picture. There has never been a more tepid favorite in Derby Futures wagering than in this year's Pool 3, being conducted this weekend, where Lion Heart is the 8-1 favorite despite massive holes in his resume: He has never faced the best of his generation, he has yet to win at 3, he will have only two preps for the Derby, and it's entirely unclear he's going to want any part of 1 1/4 miles. Not exactly your typical Derby favorite.

It's time for someone to step forward with a breakout race this Saturday or next in the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, or even the Illinois or Arkansas Derby. Every year people whine about what a mess the Derby picture is, but this year they are really right.

The season to date has been marked by one massive disappointment after another, and is further complicated by the radical training plans for some contenders. Friends Lake, winner of the only Grade 1 of the season, and Read the Footnotes, whose Fountain of Youth was by far the fastest winning prep, will not race in April and are heading into the Derby off seven-week layoffs, a tactic that hasn't worked for anyone since Needles in 1956.

Is it such an open scramble that someone can beat the West Coast Whammy? Maybe, but probably not if it's a five-way photo at the wire. The last three Santa Anita Derby winners who went on to victory in Kentucky won by lopsided margins. Sunday Silence won his by 11 lengths, a year after Winning Colors won by 7 1/2 and 11 years after Affirmed won by 8. The stage is so empty this year that a victory by half as much daylight would look awfully strong.