04/15/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart remains Derby's X factor


ARCADIA, Calif. - When he sprints to the lead two weeks from Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, Lion Heart cannot count on the same luxuries afforded recent front-running Derby winners who benefited from soft trips, a rival's misfortune, or mistaken strategy.

Yet while an element of luck often is required to win the Derby, perhaps Lion Heart will not need to be lucky. So what if he lost his last two starts? In the San Rafael and Blue Grass, Lion Heart ran better than the horses that beat him. It's not the first time a one-dimensional speedster won the battle and lost the war.

It happens all the time with breakneck front-runners, which does not disparage the opportunistic late-runners that were good enough to take advantage. Imperialism and The Cliff's Edge, upset winners of the San Rafael and Blue Grass, respectively, ran very well. In both races, however, runner-up Lion Heart ran better.

On March 6 in the one-mile San Rafael, Lion Heart dueled hard with sprinter Hosco. Lion Heart set blazing fractions of 45.71 seconds and 1:10.10, got nailed, and finished 4 1/2 lengths clear of third. On April 10 in the nine-furlong Blue Grass, Lion Heart went fast, put away his pace foes, and was collared. The fractions were severe - a half-mile in 46.60, six furlongs in 1:11.12. Lion Heart lost, but finished six lengths clear of third.

Beyond doubt, the San Rafael and Blue Grass established Lion Heart as the nation's fastest 3-year-old. And that is all. It does not mean he has to win the Kentucky Derby. It only means that the front-runner enters as the most influential and dangerous horse in the race.

Love him or hate him, Lion Heart will have more impact on the Derby than any other starter. He will dictate the tempo, and most everyone knows it. Unlike past Derbies won by front-runners, this year there are no surprises. Lion Heart is high profile. Or is he?

In 2002, few took War Emblem seriously. After all, Illinois Derby winners with a lofty speed figure do not win the Kentucky Derby. But the opinion turned out flat wrong when War Emblem got loose and wired the field at $43. He was the first front-running Derby winner in eight years.

The 1994 Derby was the most recent contested over a wet track. Go for Gin had proper credentials, and exploited the bad-start misfortune of favorites Holy Bull and Brocco. Go for Gin made the lead into the backstretch and splashed to a $20.20 upset on sloppy going, the first front-running winner in six years.

In 1988, the filly Winning Colors raced to the lead and was gone at $8.80. Forty Niner's jockey, Pat Day, may have committed a tactical error by not attacking the filly early. Let the debate continue. Perhaps Day did not have enough horse. That afternoon, Winning Colors was simply faster.

In 1985, Spend a Buck ran them ragged. A speedster who routinely went a half in 45-and-change, Spend a Buck opened up six lengths in 45.60, and was gone at $10.20. There may not have been a horse in the Derby lineup who could keep up with Spend a Buck, as if anyone would volunteer for that suicide mission.

Now the question is who will keep the 2004 pacesetter honest? Can anyone run with Lion Heart? Perhaps there is a sense it does not matter, and that Lion Heart will come back to the field on his own. Lion Heart may have done himself a favor by skipping the Santa Anita Derby, shipping to Keeneland, and getting beat.

Had he stayed home for the Santa Anita Derby, Lion Heart may have run himself right into the role of Kentucky Derby favorite. Consider this - the 110 Beyer that Lion Heart earned at Keeneland was more than four lengths faster than the 103 Beyer earned by Santa Anita Derby winner Castledale. In theory, Lion Heart would have won the Santa Anita Derby in a romp.

Maybe it is just as well that he shipped and lost. No longer invincible, Lion Heart is perceived as vulnerable. Having lost the Blue Grass by a half-length, Lion Heart will be taken less seriously than if he had crushed the Santa Anita Derby field.

But in two weeks, the Kentucky Derby pace may come up soft. Smarty Jones will chase, but he is not as fast as Lion Heart. Limehouse, a distant third in the Blue Grass, will not make the same mistake by engaging Lion Heart again. Pollard's Vision, default pacesetter in the slow-pace Illinois Derby, is not quick, nor is Read the Footnotes. Lion Heart could be loose on the lead.

And yet the front-runner still faces many hurdles. Lion Heart might not stay 1 1/4 miles. Three weeks between starts might be insufficient recovery time following a taxing Blue Grass effort. It is possible that a mere two preps will have provided inadequate foundation for Lion Heart.

In the 2004 Kentucky Derby, handicappers can fear Lion Heart or toss him. Either way, no analysis can be complete without addressing the dilemma of the most dangerous horse in the field. And ultimately, every bettor must decide whether Lion Heart can steal the race on a lonely lead, or whether 1 1/4 miles will be his undoing.