04/22/2004 12:00AM

'Keep it simple' is simply impossible this year


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - There is a splendid chance that this year's Kentucky Derby winner is going to have some pretty unconventional past performances.

Should Lion Heart, Tapit, Read the Footnotes, Friends Lake, or Birdstone win, he would be the first since Sunny's Halo in 1983 to do so off just two prep races at age 3.

Read the Footnotes and Friends Lake, moreover, will have been idle for seven weeks since the Florida Derby, and it has been almost a half-century since a layoff like that was successful.

Action This Day? Well, there's the whole Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx thing, and he just seems to have gone totally off form since an encouraging 3-year-old debut.

Do you like Borrego, Eddington, or Minister Eric? Then you had better hope they have the raw potential of an Alysheba, because he is the most recent Derby winner without a previous stakes win on his resume.

How about Rock Hard Ten or Song of the Sword? Very iffy even if they get in, because beginning your career in February is just too late. The last to do so was Apollo, shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Wimbledon? Over on Dosage at 5.00.

Remember Dosage?

On top of all this, it's hard to know what to make of the figures for several key prep races. The Florida Derby, much maligned after Friends Lake won it with a lowly 92 Beyer, promptly produced Wood Memorial winner Tapit and Blue Grass winner The Cliff's Edge.

Tapit was visually impressive running 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.70 in the Wood, and got a Beyer of 98. The Cliff's Edge, the third-stringer in Nick Zito's barn all winter behind Birdstone and Eurosilver, wore down Lion Heart after 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.42 and got a Beyer of 111 for the Blue Grass.

To recap:

* The Florida Derby was run over a sandy beach of a track. Given subsequent results, it's hard to take the speed figure at face value.

* The Wood, meanwhile, was one of only two routes on the Aqueduct card, the other run hours earlier at the obscure distance of 1 5/16 miles. It's not like there was a mountain of reliable data to work with.

The Wood pace split of 1:11.40 and final time of 1:49.70 come into a more favorable light, however, when compared with the 34 other races at the same distance from the start of the meet through April 21: The pace time ranks third-fastest of the 35 routes, and it is daylight back to the fourth-fastest six-furlong split of 1:12.17, which was set by Host and pressed by Funny Cide in the Excelsior Handicap. The final time also ranks third-fastest, eclipsed only by Funny Cide and Evening Attire's stretch battle in the Excelsior (1:49.57) and by a third-level allowance where Kissin Saint went in 1:48.33 on an extremely glib surface.

* If you're buying into The Cliff's Edge's 111 in the Blue Grass, it means accepting these splits on faith: 23.70, 22.90, 24.52, 25.79, 12.51. That means that after an acceleration in the second quarter and consecutive slowdowns in the third and fourth quarters, the pace suddenly quickened again in the last eighth of a mile.

After wrestling with the Quirin-style pace and speed figs for the Wood and Blue Grass, my personal interpretation is that the Wood was probably a little better than indicated by the figure, and the Blue Grass wasn't quite as strong as indicated by the figure.

All I really know for sure is that the Derby draw is Wednesday, and I'm more confused than ever. With a week to go, I'm trying to find exotics keys based on outcome scenarios, and these are the ones on my short list.

* Outcome No. 1 - Just bet the big-figure horses, stupid: The Blue Grass Beyers are upheld. Following in the footsteps of recent big-figure Derby overlays Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide, a relentless The Cliff's Edge runs down a game Lion Heart for his third victory at Churchill Downs, with Read the Footnotes and Smarty Jones chasing throughout and holding on for third and fourth. The trifecta comes back $2,000, the superfecta comes back $20,000, and afterward everyone laments not hitting either one.

* Outcome No. 2 - The mad genius strikes again, stupid: If I'm looking for an unconventional type of winner, Michael Dickinson has to be my man. After matching his 2-year-old Beyer top second time out at age 3, often the harbinger of an impending forward move, the long-striding Tapit devours the leaders in the stretch and wins going away. Meanwhile, Master David confirms the strength of the Wood field and improves second time off the layoff to complete the exacta.

* Outcome No. 3 - It's Baffert, stupid: Wimbledon, benefiting from a perfect trip under new rider Jerry Bailey, runs to his bullet workouts over the Churchill surface and rebounds from a dull effort in the Santa Derby, where he was positioned too close to the pace. Allowed to settle early, Wimbledon comes from far back to edge Castledale and Imperialism, as the California horses sweep the top spots.

* Outcome No. 4 - Bet the lone speed, stupid: Lulling his rivals to sleep with a steady procession of 24-second quarters, the $1.4 million colt Lion Heart builds a lengthy lead and rambles to an impressive score.

"Pace makes the race," someone says in the winner's circle.