03/17/2004 1:00AM

A late-bloomer with the right breeding


LAS VEGAS - The Kentucky Derby is six weeks from Saturday, and with the 3-year-old picture in total disarray, it looks like a Gato del Sol- or Charismatic-type year.

As usual, the four final 1 1/8-mile Derby preps - Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, and Wood Memorial Stakes - will separate the contenders from the pretenders. But it has been shown that in a wide-open year, races such as the Lexington Stakes or Illinois Derby could also be a stepping-stone to Derby success.

The Lexington signaled the coming-out party for the late-maturing Charismatic, while the previously unheralded War Emblem blossomed quickly in April, defeating Repent in the Illinois Derby as a prelude to his wire-to-wire victory in the Derby.

But first there are three preps this Saturday that may have bearing on the Kentucky Derby.

Lane's End Stakes

This race could have been classified as a nice allowance race if not for the presence of Birdstone. Birdstone could not have found an easier spot to try 1 1/8 miles for the first time. His only competition should come from Silver Minister (by Silver Deputy), who has won three straight stakes over the Turfway Park oval: the Prevue, WEBN, and John Battaglia Memorial stakes.

One colt to keep an eye on, however, is New Element, who showed dramatic improvement in his last start on Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds for trainer Ronny Werner, winning a 1 1/16-mile maiden race. By the suddenly resurgent stallion Louis Quatorze (sire of Second of June and Herculated), New Element is out of a half-sister to the dam of Monarchos.

Rebel Stakes

This race includes only one possible Kentucky Derby contender in multiple stakes winner Mr. Jester (Silver Deputy). Mr. Jester finished a game second to Gradepoint in the Risen Star Stakes, his first start of the year, and should be a much fitter animal for the Rebel. His challengers include some promising colts who are questionable at the 1 1/16 miles of the Rebel, let alone 1 1/4 miles.

Smarty Jones, by Elusive Quality from a prolific female family of stakes winners, is a talented sprinter-miler who will be most effective up to 1 1/16 miles. The lightly raced Purge has the look of a budding star, and while the Rebel distance is well within his grasp, it would be a mistake to submit him to the Kentucky Derby grind. Purge is by Pulpit, and his dam is a half-sister to Valid Wager and Miss Bold Appeal, the dam of Jersey Girl. This female family has produced high-quality individuals over multiple generations, such as Valid Expectations and Foolish Pleasure.

Rebel starter Maisie's Son is by Grindstone, also the sire of Birdstone, and is a half-brother to Talk's Cheap. His third dam is a half-sister to the influential stallion Intentionally.

Gotham Stakes

While the Lane's End and Rebel are longer races, the one-mile Gotham shapes up as the most exciting of the weekend's three Derby preps. Pomeroy, Deputy Storm, Quick Action, and Saratoga County ensure a lively pace, but as far as the Kentucky Derby is concerned, there is only one 1 1/4-mile prospect in the Gotham field that merits serious attention, and that is Eddington.

Second in his 2-year-old debut at one mile in November at Aqueduct, he finished second in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race behind Shaniko at Gulfstream on Jan. 8. He won his maiden at the same distance with ease in his third race, and followed that with an effortless 5 1/2-length allowance victory, also at 1 1/16 miles, despite looking green in the stretch. With three straight routes under his belt, he will be tested for class in the Gotham, and based on his sterling pedigree, he stands as the colt with the most potential for the Kentucky Derby who is racing this weekend.

Eddington gets a triple dose of stamina from his sire, Unbridled, his damsire, Chief's Crown, and second damsire, Sir Ivor. Most importantly, both his sire and dam possess the Rasmussen Factor (inbreeding to a superior female within five generations through different individuals), which often is an indicator of high quality. Unbridled is inbred to Aspidistra, the dam of Horse of the Year Dr. Fager, as well as Dr. Fager's champion half-sister Ta Wee. Aspidistra also produced the unraced Magic, the third dam of Unbridled. Eddington's dam, Fashion Star, is inbred to Somethingroyal through her two best sons, Secretariat and Sir Gaylord, exactly like Charismatic.

Five of Eddington's opponents are strictly sprinter-milers who are ideally bred for the Gotham, but not the Kentucky Derby. Deputy Storm, by Forestry out of the quick Deputy Jane West, was second in the Hutcheson, his 3-year-old debut, behind stablemate Limehouse (who came back to win the Tampa Bay Derby last Sunday). Pomeroy (Boundary) was all-out to win the Kentucky Cup Juvenile over Mr. Jester and The Cliff's Edge last September, and was disqualified for swerving out and placed third. He makes his belated 3-year-old debut in the Gotham. Quick Action (Carson City) won the Fred Capossela Stakes but tired to finish third in the 1 1/16-mile Whirlaway Stakes. Saratoga County (Valid Expectations) was third in the Hutcheson, and 1 1/16 miles will be his limit. Redskin Warrior (Indian Charlie) won the Best Turn in his 3-year-old debut and is very dangerous at one mile.

In a year full of question marks surrounding the top 3-year-olds, the door is open for a late-blooming horse bred to relish 1 1/4 miles, and that horse just may be Eddington.