03/09/2005 1:00AM

Kentucky Derby bracketology


PHILADELPHIA - The horseracing tournament lasts longer than the NCAA basketball tournament. Losing does not eliminate horses like it does college basketball teams. Winning, however, gives a horse an entirely different aura.

There are no conferences per se in horse racing, but you could consider Florida, New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, and California to be horse racing's equivalent of conferences. Dominate your area and you move on to Kentucky for the Final 20 on the first Saturday in May.

Horse racing has no selection committee, like the NCAA tournament does, but you have to think that with the arbitrary graded-stakes earnings criterion still in force, a committee, at least for the Kentucky Derby, would be a good idea. With a committee looking at each horse objectively, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington probably would have been able to run in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. (And if they had, maybe the Belmont Stakes would have had a different result.)

At tracks cross the country last Saturday, all the favorites won. Comparison, other than by Beyer Speed Figures, is difficult. Distances, surfaces, and competition all have to be factored in when trying to assess the results. I am not sure we know any more today than we did last Saturday morning.

We already knew Declan's Moon, High Fly, Afleet Alex, and Lost in the Fog had major talent. Declan's Moon does not have, say, Smarty Jones's, acceleration. He is much more of a grinder. Watching his last two races on television, I thought to myself both times that he was not doing enough at the top of the stretch to get there. Then he got there comfortably. That is a tremendous sign. Some horses just get it. This horse gets it.

If you go only by the Beyers, Declan's Moon definitely is not going to dazzle you. He just keeps finding a way to pass all the horses in front of him and not get passed by those behind him. Those are very good attributes.

Jerry Bailey gave High Fly a perfect ride. When was the last big race where he did not give his horse every chance to win? (You cynics screaming the name of Eddington can calm down. I did not forget the Belmont). By the first turn, Bailey had the race set up just like he wanted it. I am a bit more confident in the jockey than the horse. No real knocks on High Fly, but I just don't see the impossible-to-define "it" there.

I think Afleet Alex might have "it." For some reason, this colt was always underrated last year. He ran well in all six of his starts. He showed several dimensions. He was thoroughly tested. Yet he never got much credit.

True, he did not beat much in the Mountain Valley last weekend. But you had to love the way he won. Even though Afleet Alex came from far back, there was never an anxious moment. He cruised around horses on the turn, ran by the leader in the stretch despite getting carried wide, and worked an extra furlong around the first turn as if he was very eager to keep running.

Meanwhile, anyone who saw the unbeaten Lost in the Fog's second career race was not surprised that this colt could rate and go on. He is an extremely fast horse that can use his speed when it matters most. Lost in the Fog has yet to be challenged, so I don't know if any of us truly knows what's up with him. Maybe he is merely a sprinter that will hit the wall at some point. Or maybe he is a freak.

It is unusual to have three significant unbeaten horses on the Derby trail in early March. Unbeaten Rockport Harbor has yet to race in 2005, but he will emerge from his layoff on March 19 at Oaklawn Park.

The horse brackets don't get our undivided attention until mid-April. Until then, we search for clues.

The NCAA tournament is 19 days of absolute frenzy. The horse racing tournament is a little more controlled, but no less unpredictable.

Illinois looked like a lock to enter the NCAA's without a loss. And then Ohio State ended all that in the final seconds of Buckeyes-Illini game Sunday. Unbeaten Derby winners are even more rare than unbeaten NCAA tournament champs.

Smarty Jones last year became only the third undefeated Derby winner. Indiana in 1976 was the seventh and most recent undefeated NCAA champ.

Will the Derby belong to Declan's Moon, High Fly, Afleet Alex, Lost in the Fog, Rockport Harbor, or some other horse yet to emerge?

Anything is possible because it is still early. However, it is about to get late very quickly.