05/05/2005 12:00AM

Longshots need not apply


NEW YORK - In many years, handicapping the Kentucky Derby is an exercise in uncovering subtleties, hunting for small nuances and overlooked virtues in hopes of discovering a 20-1 shot who is as plausible as some overrated favorites.

Not this year. Two unusually talented colts have distinguished themselves for all the world to see, with overpowering victories in their final preps that were every bit as good as they looked. If Bellamy Road runs back anywhere close to his Wood Memorial, he will win the 131st Kentucky Derby. If he doesn't, the gritty and admirable Afleet Alex should.

Bellamy Road's Wood Memorial, where he tied a 32-year-old track record and won by 17 1/2 lengths, was not merely the best performance of the season. It may well have been the most impressive Derby prep by a 3-year-old in decades. Bellamy Road's Wood, which earned a legitimately historic Beyer Speed Figure of 120, was the stuff of greatness, not just relative superiority to his peers in a given year.

Circumstances usually conspire to create a perfect storm for such a performance, and it is true that Bellamy Road got an unchallenged lead over a very fast track against an undistinguished field. Still, his race comes up brilliantly fast even after factoring in the speed of the surface, and he wasn't trouncing maidens. Survivalist, the runner-up, won the Gotham in his previous start, and Scrappy T, who ran third, won the Withers next time out.

The question surrounding Bellamy Road is not his quality but how he will handle early pace pressure. He won't be walking to an easy lead in a field that includes Going Wild, High Limit, and Spanish Chestnut, but he should be able to sit just outside and behind the front-runners and take over at will. He won his debut from off the pace and, more important, does not race or train like an anxious speedball who needs the lead.

Afleet Alex is a throwback to the kind of horse who used to win the Derby regularly, a steadily raced 2-year-old who won juvenile fixtures such as the Sanford and Hopeful and has now successfully stretched out as a 3-year-old. Except for a single race where he clearly had a physical problem, when he came out of the Rebel with a lung infection, he shows up and runs well every single time. His eight-length Arkansas Derby victory was the second-best prep of the spring, and his strong finish after rallying into a slow pace seemed to answer the pedigree and stamina questions that had always loomed over him.

Sun King is one of the few truly intriguing longshots in the race. He was not far off Afleet Alex last fall, showed marked improvement in his season debut, then lost his bandwagon after a slow victory at Tampa and a non-effort in the Blue Grass. If you believe that he only did what he was asked to at Tampa, and remind yourself that many a Derby winner has floundered at Keeneland in his final prep, he becomes an attractive possibility at 15-1. I also will use Wilko underneath at 20-1. He may have the most upside among the generally bad batch of Californians in the race, and it would be nice to see a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner with 14 starts under his belt make a good showing.

A dozen of the 20 Derby entrants have never exceeded a Beyer Figure of 100, making them extremely unlikely Derby winners. Even winning longshots such as Charismatic and War Emblem had run much faster races before the Derby. It is astounding how many proven mediocrities are running back in the main event this year after being thrashed in their final tune-ups.

The best horse does not always win the Derby, as we have seen in recent years with Point Given and Empire Maker, and the nature of the race and size of the field means that a chaotic result is always a possibility. While getting 5-2 on Bellamy Road may not quicken the pulse, it's a square price if you think there is a better than 28 percent chance he will win the race. If he runs the way he did in the Wood, there will be pulse-quickening enough from seeing the Derby won by a truly special horse for whom the sky may be the limit.