03/15/2004 1:00AM

Kimmel should proceed with caution


NEW YORK - John Kimmel has saddled tons of winners and will saddle tons more. Nevertheless, Kimmel will be making an uncharacteristic mistake if he stands by two of the things he said after sending out Friends Lake to a 37-1 upset of Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

The first was Kimmel's remark that Friends Lake ran an "A" race in the Florida Derby. The second was his reasoning that if Friends Lake was able to run an "A" race off an eight-week layoff, then he may just as well train up to the Kentucky Derby, which is six weeks from Saturday.

Let's tackle the second point first. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby off that kind of layoff was Needles in 1956. It is not merely a wacky statistic that the last 47 Derby winners all had more recent activity. The Kentucky Derby is the hardest race in America to win. The added distance and the enormous stress involved puts the highest premium on fitness, the kind of fitness that can come only from racing. For a recent example, consider the Godolphin horses who have competed in the Derby. None of them had a race in April, and most, if not all of them, ran like short horses in Louisville.

But, Kimmel's second point would be important only if his first point were valid. Friends Lake's victory in the Florida Derby was anything but an "A" performance. Simply put, the Florida Derby field gave Friends Lake all day to win, and he needed all day to take the other horses up on their offer. The fourth quarter-mile was staggered in 26.06 seconds, and the final eighth went in a glacial 13.78. Friends Lake's final time for the 1 1/8 miles of 1:51.38 resulted in a pitiful Beyer Speed Figure of 92, which was the worst winning Florida Derby Beyer figure in at least the last 12 years, and about 10 lengths behind the 108 Empire Maker earned winning last year's Florida Derby. If this really was Friends Lake's "A" race, then it doesn't matter how he goes into the Kentucky Derby, because he will need a substantially better "A" race to win in Louisville.

What does this say about some of the more highly regarded Kentucky Derby prospects who finished behind Friends Lake? Runner-up Value Plus is a talented colt who was stretching out from seven furlongs, and it was encouraging the way he sat behind no-chance pacesetter Frisky Spider. But, Value Plus came home painfully slowly, he could not hold the lead, and he doesn't look like a genuine distance horse right now.

The Cliff's Edge was a half-length off Friends Lake at the eighth pole, and, despite the brutal final eighth fraction, was 1 1/2 lengths behind at the finish, adding to evidence that he just isn't as effective going two turns.

Read the Footnotes became the bounce poster boy of the year with his tired fourth-place finish. Just about everyone expected a regression off his gut-wrenching, Fountain of Youth effort that was worth a 113 Beyer Speed Figure. But he also could have regressed somewhat and still won, and he was made the even-money favorite. Read the Footnotes's regression was so severe - down to an 86 Beyer, or about 17 lengths worse than his Fountain of Youth - that the fear is he may be fried for a long time.

And speaking of fried, there's Tapit. If you have a trainer as brilliant as Michael Dickinson working for you, you should listen to him. Instead, it was Tapit's owners who selected the Florida Derby, perhaps the most unsuitable comeback spot of all the races they could have picked. Tapit looked like he emptied whatever was in his tank finishing sixth. He came out of the race coughing, and it would not surprise me if he missed a major chunk of this season.

These weren't the only disappointing efforts Saturday. Trainer Nick Zito professed to be happy with the way Eurosilver ran in the Swale Stakes, missing by a head to Wynn Dot Comma, although I confess to be at a loss as to why. Eurosilver was put to an all-out drive soon after leaving the backstretch, was asked for his life through the stretch, and still couldn't catch Wynn Dot Comma, who staggered his final eighth in 13.47. That's faster than the final eighth of the Florida Derby, but for a seven-furlong race of supposed quality, it's a dreadful final fraction.

There was at least a little more clarity in Sunday's most important Derby prep, the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Preachinatthebar, who had demonstrated steady improvement in his recent starts, prevailed by a nose over favored St Averil in a perfectly plausible, if not exactly compelling result.

Equally plausible, not to mention predictable, was the flop in the San Felipe of last year's 2-year-old champion, Action This Day. Action This Day had been living a charmed life ever since he upset the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October - thanks to a total pace collapse, not to mention the lack of anyone else showing up for that race. Since then, Action This Day had been widely regarded as being far better than he actually is. But, after he finished seventh of eight finishers Sunday without so much as even a straw in his path, it will be impossible for Action This Day to fool anyone anymore.