04/29/2004 11:00PM

Kentucky Derby analysis

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Front-runner Lion Heart may be too fast for his own good and incapable of carrying his speed a 1 1/4 miles. But he ranks among the elite on raw ability, and is the most likely winner - gate to wire. Barring the unforeseen, Lion Heart can shake loose from pressers Smarty Jones, Quintons Gold Rush, and Read the Footnotes. None are as fast as Lion Heart, who is in sharp form, has repeatedly proven his class, earned commanding recent Beyer Figures, and holds a pace advantage. However, Lion Heart will lose if he beats himself. It has happened before. He lost twice this year racing too fast early and tiring late. But with two starts under his belt, Lion Heart may roll to the lead, open up on the far turn, and hold off the closers.

Deep closer The Cliff's Edge has no apparent flaw, and is the logical late threat. Improving in each start, he exploited fast fractions last time to win a Grade 1; a similar scenario would allow him to again nail the speed. But will the speed stop? If so, The Cliff's Edge is the "safe" selection.

Longshots Minister Eric and Pro Prado will start at odds higher than their true chances. Minister Eric is better this year than he was at 2. He underwent minor surgery after his runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup, and though his 2004 campaign has been unorthodox (no stakes), he has other key attributes. Those include sharp form, graded-stakes class (last year), successive triple-digit Beyers, and a grinding late run. Pro Prado also is in sharp form, and a pace meltdown would allow this closer to hit the board at a huge price.

Tapit will try to become the first since 1993 to win the Derby after earning a slow two-digit Beyer in his final prep. Tapit earned a 98 Beyer, and needs much improvement. He and Wood runner-up Master David might not be fast enough. Borrego, Castledale, and Imperialism will pick up some pieces. Smarty Jones, Quintons Gold Rush, and Read the Footnotes will press and could hold for a share if a slow pace unfolds.

Action This Day, Birdstone, St Averil, and Wimbledon appear off form. Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes have not raced in seven weeks. Limehouse, Pollard's Vision, and Song of the Sword might be outclassed.Castledale has the class, style, and pedigree to win the Kentucky Derby. A dual graded winner, he closed to victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, defeating Kentucky Derby starters Imperialism and Quintons Gold Rush. The race was later legitimized when Quintons Gold Rush, the fourth-place finisher, won the Lexington Stakes.

To his credit, Castledale won on heart after jockey Jose Valdivia dropped his whip at the eighth pole. Few colts in this field would have proved capable of winning a stretch battle with a horse as good as Rock Hard Ten under that scenario.

With an abundance of speed in the Derby field - led by Lion Heart, Pollard's Vision, and Smarty Jones - quick early splits should set up his late rally. Throw in the fact that he is one of the few Derby starters with a true 1 1/4-mile pedigree, and it becomes clear that this colt could be wearing a blanket of roses.

Master David, the runner-up in a slow Wood Memorial, is a live longshot. It is important to note that the Wood has produced the Derby winner in three of the past four years. Funny Cide (2003) and Monarchos (2001) won their Derbies after runner-up finishes in the Wood. Fusaichi Pegasus won both races in 2000.

Master David has not run the speed figures necessary to win, but he may take a step forward in his second race following a layoff. He missed the Florida Derby earlier this year because of illness, which likely meant that he needed his race in the Wood to regain fitness.

Wimbledon was a soundly beaten fifth behind Castledale when he moved prematurely in the Santa Anita Derby. He is much more effective behind a fast pace when able to settle and make a late run. That is how he won the Louisiana Derby earlier in the year, and it appears the Derby could similarly unfold with a fast pace.

The Cliff's Edge, perfect in two starts at Churchill Downs, won a fast Blue Grass Stakes, outrunning Lion Heart. He is approaching the Derby in top fashion, but is trouble-prone because of his temperament and late-running style.Pollard's VisionPollard's Vision has been improving steadily. He was an impressive winner of a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream with a faster-than-par come-home time on Feb. 8. He improved his pace figure significantly in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, when he made a premature move to take the lead through a much faster fraction. He can be forgiven for tiring to finish third. He took another big step forward when he set a pace that was faster than most handicappers realize in the Illinois Derby, drawing clear to win with a 107 Beyer that is only a few points shy of what will probably be required to succeed in the Derby. I can't promise that he will continue to blossom Saturday, but it is a realistic possibility, and if he does he will win this race at longshot odds. Read the Footnotes has been consistent, with five wins from seven career starts. Although he ran a sub-par race in the Florida Derby, he deserves the benefit of the doubt based on his previous reliability. At overlaid odds, I will forgive the unorthodox gap between races. The Cliff's Edge ran a big race when he rallied from far back to win the Blue Grass. A fast pace would make him formidable with a similar effort, but the possibility of regression must also be considered. Minister Eric earned an improved pace figure without being asked for his best at Keeneland. He is willing to rate more kindly than that, and is worth a win saver bet at long odds. Castledale has the right style to capitalize if the pace is aggressive. It remains to be seen if he can repeat his Santa Anita Derby performance, but generous odds would make me an optimist in the exotics. Lion Heart and Smarty Jones are both talented, but they must overcome a disadvantageous pace scenario. Underlaid odds are unappealing. Imperialism and Borrego deserve respect in the exotics. Limehouse will benefit from a return to off-the-pace tactics. Tapit is one of just four runners in this field who have not yet earned a triple-digit Beyer. Improvement is likely, but single-digit odds will not be a bargain. Wimbledon is better than his Santa Anita Derby try suggests. has been improving steadily. He was an impressive winner of a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream with a faster-than-par come-home time on Feb. 8. He improved his pace figure significantly in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, when he made a premature move to take the lead through a much faster fraction. He can be forgiven for tiring to finish third. He took another big step forward when he set a pace that was faster than most handicappers realize in the Illinois Derby, drawing clear to win with a 107 Beyer that is only a few points shy of what will probably be required to succeed in the Derby. I can't promise that he will continue to blossom Saturday, but it is a realistic possibility, and if he does he will win this race at longshot odds. Read the Footnotes has been consistent, with five wins from seven career starts. Although he ran a sub-par race in the Florida Derby, he deserves the benefit of the doubt based on his previous reliability. At overlaid odds, I will forgive the unorthodox gap between races. The Cliff's Edge ran a big race when he rallied from far back to win the Blue Grass. A fast pace would make him formidable with a similar effort, but the possibility of regression must also be considered. Minister Eric earned an improved pace figure without being asked for his best at Keeneland. He is willing to rate more kindly than that, and is worth a win saver bet at long odds. Castledale has the right style to capitalize if the pace is aggressive. It remains to be seen if he can repeat his Santa Anita Derby performance, but generous odds would make me an optimist in the exotics. Lion Heart and Smarty Jones are both talented, but they must overcome a disadvantageous pace scenario. Underlaid odds are unappealing. Imperialism and Borrego deserve respect in the exotics. Limehouse will benefit from a return to off-the-pace tactics. Tapit is one of just four runners in this field who have not yet earned a triple-digit Beyer. Improvement is likely, but single-digit odds will not be a bargain. Wimbledon is better than his Santa Anita Derby try suggests.Two things made this year's prep races confusing: Repeated situations where making stone-cold accurate speed figures was next to impossible, and some well-regarded contenders who took the road less traveled, either in terms of a light prep schedule, an unorthodox layoff, or both.

If any trainer can get a horse to win the Derby off four lifetime starts, it's Michael Dickinson. And if any horse has license to improve, it's Tapit, a long-striding gray colt who came from last to win the Wood on a speed-favoring track despite spending a good portion of the stretch gawking at the crowd.

Tapit seemed to be playing, and just getting warmed up in the final yards of the Wood, this after coming from farther behind than ever before while losing ground on both turns - off just one race in five months!

With A.P. Indy as a grandsire and Unbridled as a broodmare sire, Tapit should flourish at 10 furlongs. What's more, Tapit should get a good pace situation, because the fractions project to be very strong: Of the five contenders with Beyers of 107 or faster, one is expected to set the pace, and three others are pressers.

The Cliff's Edge will also be rallying into a terrific pace setup, after a breakthrough performance to run down tough-trip Lion Heart in a big-figure Blue Grass. A consistent, seasoned stakes horse with two wins over the track last fall, The Cliff's Edge is peaking at the right time.

Lion Heart's connections threw down the gauntlet by taking post 3, which makes it clear their strategy will be, "Catch him if you can." This is a fast, compact, and gritty colt cut in the mold of a Peace Rules, and he is coming off two very difficult trips. But Lion Heart will face testing middle fractions under pressure from quality rivals such as Read the Footnotes, Pollard's Vision, and Smarty Jones, which will make it tough for him to stay the trip.

Read the Footnotes is fast, classy, and has bounce-back potential. He has won fresh, has demonstrated courage under fire, and merits a look if allowed to get away at a silly price.

Smarty Jones found little resistance setting or prompting slow-to-ordinary paces in four route wins. He may be in for a rude awakening in this much tougher matchup.This year's Kentucky Derby is so wide open that one gets the feeling they could run this race five times and get five different sets of results. And that would be over a fast track. Factor in the potential for wet footing, and anything goes. Looking for some value is a must under these circumstances, and with that in mind, Read the Footnotes will get top billing. Regarded as the leader of the class earlier this winter after a sensational performance in the Fountain of Youth, Read the Footnotes's rating slipped following one sub-par effort in the Florida Derby, although that Derby prep has since come up a key race. A New York-bred, Read the Footnotes has done everything right in the seven weeks since the Florida Derby, and although his Smoke Glacken pedigree makes him suspect at the distance, he did win the nine-furlong Remsen at 2. The Cliff's Edge came out of the Florida Derby to earn high marks winning the Blue Grass and has looked and trained like a million bucks here for the past several weeks. Loves the course but will not offer any value as the likely favorite in such an evenly matched field. Wimbledon's stock has risen steadily here over the past week, beginning with a sensational workout in the slop Sunday, and would climb even higher if the track is wet on Derby Day. Should be a square price even with Bailey in the saddle. Friends Lake won in a strong field in the Florida Derby and, like Read the Footnotes, figures to offer some value as a result of the race's low Beyer Figure and his subsequent seven-week layoff. He is impeccably bred to handle the distance. Tapit exited the Florida Derby to win the Wood while at less than 100 percent, and figures to improve with that race under his belt. He has to overcome a relative lack of experience and a less-than-attractive post position. Borrego continues to improve and is capable of running late for a major share at a square price if he is fortunate enough to get a clean trip from the back of this big lineup. Smarty Jones faces his toughest test to date, but has trained extremely well since his arrival at Churchill Downs and may well be a very special colt. The question remains whether he can get the 1 1/4 miles against this caliber of opposition, and he will be a relatively short price.Of all the horses in this Kentucky Derby, there is only one who has the potential to raise his game by as much as six to 10 lengths off a sharp performance in his last start. That horse is Tapit, and that is why he is my pick.

Tapit closed from last of 11 to win the Wood Memorial last time out, erasing the bad taste of his lone loss in the Florida Derby, and yet he did so while barely getting out of a common gallop. It was only in the very late stages, after gawking at the grandstand through most of the stretch, that Tapit actually put his head down and ran, strongly suggesting he has a much better race in him.

It is true that Tapit has yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, but he earned a 98 Beyer at 2, so that is a mere formality. It is true that Tapit has had only two preps, and that type of light pre-Derby schedule has worked only twice since 1947. It is also true that the last horse to win the Derby after as few as four career starts was Exterminator in 1918. But Tapit is trained by Michael Dickinson, who makes short work of breaking traditional racing conventions.

Master David was beaten only a half-length by Tapit in the Wood. And since that was his first start in two months, he is also eligible to improve, although he isn't expected to improve as much as Tapit.

Quintons Gold Rush is a dangerous pace presence at what should be a good price. He was impressive winning the Lexington most recently, and is going in the right direction.

Lion Heart has as much talent as anyone in this field, and ran winning races in two narrow defeats this year. But unlike Tapit, he could have used a third prep, if for nothing else than the conditioning, because he is a bit iffy at this distance.

The Cliff's Edge ran much better than I thought he was capable of, winning the Blue Grass for a 111 Beyer. But after previously being against him because of poor Beyers, this is no time for me to jump on him, not as the probable favorite, and not with a bounce as a possibility.