04/15/2002 12:00AM

Latest preps simply raise more questions

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NEW YORK - The Kentucky Derby picture may not appear quite as desperate as it did at this point last week, when we all were assessing Came Home's troublingly slow Santa Anita Derby and War Emblem's fluky win in the Illinois Derby over Repent. But the thrilling battle between Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro in the Wood Memorial, and the dominating victories by Harlan's Holiday and Private Emblem in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby this past Saturday, didn't exactly clear everything up, either.

Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro both ran terrific races in the Wood, New York's final Triple Crown prep, which has produced the last two winners of the Kentucky Derby, Monarchos and Fusaichi Pegasus. Buddha pressed Medaglia d'Oro's lead from the rail and beat him by only a head, mirroring their striking similarities in past performances going into the race. Of course, two questions about them must be asked. After only four starts each, do they have sufficient experience to succeed in Louisville? And do they have the right running style?

Neither matter concerns me. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro have real talent, and in a 3-year-old year when that quality seems to be at a premium, real talent will enable them to overcome a lot. While it is true Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro went around the track one-two, neither seems to be a need-the-lead type. Buddha, in fact, has sat off the lead winning all three of his starts this year, and Medaglia d'Oro showed a lot when he won the San Felipe by re-rallying after dropping back around the far turn. This is critical, because the Kentucky Derby is not a speed horse's race.

Since Winning Colors was a front-running winner of the Derby in 1988, only two other Derbies have been won by with-the-pace horses, Go for Gin in 1994 and Silver Charm in 1997. And although Silver Charm was was just 1 1/4 lengths off the lead at the first call, he did sit in sixth position.

Sunday Break also ran well finishing third in the Wood, a half-length behind Medaglia d'Oro. While it is true Sunday Break sat a perfect trip off the two leaders and was unable to gain an inch from the far turn to the wire, I think he was a short horse going in because he couldn't have gotten much out of his allowance win at Aqueduct last month when he goofed off the length of the stretch.

The same cannot be said for Saarland and Blue Burner. Both stretch runners got an honest enough pace and neither made any kind of impact. Saarland, in particular, needs a race to completely collapse to get involved, and even then, he needs luck, because he doesn't have the turn of foot to avoid trouble.

Getting back to Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, there is one other question to be addressed. Last week, Came Home was slammed for coming home so slowly in the Santa Anita Derby, with a final eighth of a mile in 13.32 seconds and a final three-eighths in something like 38.60. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro went their final three eighths only marginally faster, 38.47, and actually covered their final eighth in a slower 13.42. Of course, comparing times and fractions without taking into account the speed of the racing surface is dangerous business. But keep in mind, Aqueduct's main track Saturday was very fast.

Everyone seems to have finally tuned into the importance of come-home times (is there anything more important in turf racing?), and that was an issue Saturday with Harlan's Holiday, who cemented his position as favorite for the Derby with his 4 1/2-length win in the Blue Grass. Harlan's Holiday actually came home considerably slower in the Blue Grass than Came Home did last week, with a last eighth in 13.55 and a final three eighths in 39.65. It was a drying out track at Keeneland on Saturday, making comparisons even more risky, but it's interesting to note that the mile split of the Blue Grass was only a little more than two ticks faster than entry-level 3-year-old allowance fillies posted the race before.

Harlan's Holiday's slow final clocking of 1:51.51 wasn't a concern to his jockey, Edgar Prado, who really did tell a national television audience that "time only matters when you're in jail." The vast majority of us know otherwise, but Prado is also the one who kept Harlan's Holiday four or five wide - at Keeneland! - which says a lot, too.

In deference to Harlan's Holiday, however, there was no one in the Blue Grass to make him run any faster than he had to. This is not the case with most horses, but Harlan's Holiday has given me the impression of being able to run faster if pressed.

For the record, Private Emblem won the "Come-Home Derby" Saturday with a last eighth in 12.67 and a final three-eighths in 37.94 while winning the Arkansas Derby by the same margin Harlan's Holiday took the Blue Grass. Private Emblem has yet to test his mettle against any of the leading members of his generation, and I'm still smarting for having lost with him in a New York-bred race last fall. But the dubious quality of the horses behind him Saturday didn't have anything to do with how fast he finished, nor did an absurdly easy trip like the one War Emblem got in the Illinois Derby. Private Emblem simply ran big, big enough to merit inclusion on the list of legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders.