04/25/2002 11:00PM

Key Derby question: Who can run 110?

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For the sake of argument, let's estimate that it will probably require something in the neighborhood of a 110 Beyer Speed Figure to win this year's Kentucky Derby. Who do you envision running the type of race that will earn that number?

Harlan's Holiday shows 10 career starts, and deserves respect for his consistency - six wins and four second-place finishes. He also has a good off-the-pace running style that figures to give him every opportunity to capitalize on what will probably be an unreasonably fast early pace. But he will enter the starting gate with two straight declining Beyers, a 101 in the Florida Derby, and a 98 that he earned for his win over a very soft field in the Blue Grass. The slow come-home time of that race gave Harlan's Holiday his second straight perfect pace set-up. With that in mind, shouldn't he have run faster than he did in those races? I won't tell you that Harlan's Holiday can't win this Derby, but I will tell you that he looks like a serious underlay at 7-2 or 4-1 in a 20 horse field. I'll try to beat him.

Although Came Home has won six of seven career starts, it is a great concern that his Beyers have declined steadily as the distances of his races have increased. His 96 Beyer was good enough to beat a modest field in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, but it would not come close to being sufficient in the Kentucky Derby, and continued regression seems inevitable at 1 1/4 miles. I'm willing to believe that his strong work over the track is a sign that Came Home likes Churchill, but he'll like it a lot more during the first mile than he will during the last quarter-mile.

Johannesburg disappointed in a loss as the heavy favorite in his 2002 debut in Ireland. With that lone prep race under his belt, do you see him running a 110 second time out? I don't.

If these three well-supported horses do indeed turn out to be vulnerable, which horses are poised to capitalize? The horses who have been on the Derby trail the longest are a big part of the reason why this year's crop is believed to be sub-par, so it makes good sense to search for the winner among the lightly-raced, rapidly-improving horses. The first three finishers in the Wood Memorial all meet that standard.

Buddha is undefeated this year. He graduated convincingly in a seven-furlong maiden special at Gulfstream on Feb. 9, then dominated allowance N1X company when he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles. He was tested for class when he dueled through a faster-than-par pace, then held on gamely to beat Medaglia d'Oro by a head in the 1 1/8-mile Wood. Buddha won't be able to set or duel through that kind of fast pace and hope to win the Kentucky Derby. But it is very easy to envision him winning the roses with an off-the-pace trip. If Pat Day can rate Buddha about six lengths behind the leaders early, he can make his move into contention on the backstretch, and can bid for the lead at the top of the lane. From that point on, I'll trust Day to have saved enough energy to enable Buddha to hold the closers safe during the final furlong. After consecutive 106 and 105 Beyers, it would be no surprise to see improvement to a 110 from Buddha, while making only his fifth career start.

Medaglia d'Oro ran almost as well as Buddha did in the Wood, and might be underplayed in relation to that rival. He would benefit greatly from rating tactics, and after consecutive 107 and 105 Beyers, a 110 is clearly well within his range in his fifth lifetime start.

Sunday Break would be a serious threat now that he appears to be putting it all together, but there is a good chance that his graded stakes earnings will not be high enough to get him into the Derby field.

Saarland has yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer. But he did manage to finish fourth in the Wood. If his recent minor throat surgery gives him a boost, he will be a realistic contender.

Perfect Drift and Request for Parole are my two best longshot plays. They both ran well enough in the Spiral, with 103 and 102 Beyers, to deserve a chance for the upset at large odds. Perfect Drift's off-the-pace style makes him my top longshot. I don't have money on him yet, but I plan to take advantage of odds between 20-1 and 30-1 on Derby Day. I have money down on Request for Parole at 58-1 in Pool 1 of the Derby Future Wager, but I plan to increase the size of that bet at similar odds on race day. Don't hold Azillion's poor showing in the Blue Grass against Perfect Drift or Request for Parole. Azillion never extended himself in a race that's a throw-out.

War Emblem terrorized his rivals at Sportsman's. The 112 Beyer he earned in his comfortable triumph in the Illinois Derby would probably win the Kentucky Derby if he could match it, but the suspicion here is that he won't. Nevertheless, 20-1 and higher would qualify him for a saver bet.