04/04/2007 11:00PM

Look past the flaws in Santa Anita Derby


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Santa Anita Derby will be run for the 70th time this weekend, and many at Santa Anita are asking the same question: Who do you like Saturday in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct?

Until recently, the Santa Anita Derby was a reliable indicator of 3-year-old class. This year, the 10-runner derby is merely an interesting race on which to wager. No need to be critical, and if the Wood is more likely to produce the Kentucky Derby winner, so what? The first Saturday in May is still four weeks away.

West Coast 3-year-olds usually would have sorted themselves out by April, when the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby is run. And the public usually gets it right - the betting favorite has won 43 percent of the Santa Anita Derbies, and the first two choices combined have won 71 percent.

But every starter this year has a major flaw, including the 5-2 favorite, Liquidity. His four routes include three good performances and one dud. The good races were runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity and Grade 3 Sham, and a third-place finish in a minor stakes. Those races unfolded at a slow pace (opening half-miles in about 48 seconds) that Liquidity was able to press.

The only time Liquidity faced "true" fractions in a route, in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, he chased a fast half-mile in 46.40 seconds and wilted at the furlong pole. Doug O'Neill blamed himself for under-training Liquidity into that race, and it is clear O'Neill will not repeat the mistake. Liquidity has two sharp recent workouts, and the Santa Anita Derby will be run over the track where Liquidity ran his two best races.

But the fact is that Liquidity has not yet chased a legitimate pace and shown any sort of finish. Liquidity also ran poorly in both starts out of town, similar to the O'Neill-trained Lava Man - a star at home, a mere mortal on the road. Compounding the Santa Anita Derby dilemma is Liquidity's price. At 5-2 on the program, the question is whether the small reward is worth the risk.

King of the Roxy is the best horse in the field based on two graded stakes wins and the Beyer Speed Figure of 103 that he earned last out in a sharp win at 7 1/2 furlongs. The knock is that King of the Roxy is sprinter. But who is to say a sprinter cannot win a weak route? His only previous route was unfair; he was wiped out on the first turn of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. King of the Roxy is a good horse, razor-sharp, and a major threat if he can negotiate the extra turn. And just think - all that for 3-1. Really swell.

Sam P. might be the "steam" on Saturday, based on an improved runner-up finish in the Robert B. Lewis last out and increasing support from local handicappers. Sam P., a grinder, was under a drive on the far turn, and got past a weary front-runner only in deep stretch. If Sam P. is sharper adding blinkers, he can improve on his career-best 99 Beyer Figure (only 5 points short of the Santa Anita Derby par). The best race of Sam P.'s career was his last, and isn't that what you want at this time of year - an improving horse? Sam P. is a contender at 4-1. Be prepared for that price to go lower.

Level Red is 5-1, and adding blinkers after a third-place finish in the San Felipe. Level Red probably will be positioned second, and likely to get first run if the pacesetter folds. Level Red has yet to run a fast race, but his expected good trip means he will be in the right spot when they turn for home.

Bwana Bull would be a toss most years because his top Beyer is only 89. Speed figures lose importance, however, when no starter runs to par. Bwana Bull is slow, and so are the others. He wins races - 4 of his last 5, including the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby last out at Bay Meadows, during which announcer Michael Wrona provided a descriptive call. At the top of the lane, he said, "Bwana Bull . . . three lengths away . . . struggling." Bwana Bull finally did wear down Freesgood, who had finished nowhere in his two previous starts. A struggling Bwana Bull is difficult to endorse at 8-1.

Boutrous finished behind Sam P. and Bwana Bull his last two starts. He will be passing tired horses, which is about the only nice thing to say. Blinkers are on, and his price is likely to go up from 12-1 on the morning line.

Black Seventeen will set the pace, and that alone gives him a fighting chance to spring an upset at 15-1. A front-running sprinter, Black Seventeen did not weaken until deep stretch in a his comeback sprint. The Santa Anita Derby is his second start back and first try around two turns.

Lightly raced Court the King is an interesting knockout. He made a menacing move on the far turn of the El Camino, and then flattened out. Trainer John Sadler said he bled in that race. Court the King is not good enough on speed or class, but he will be picking up the pieces and is listed at 20-1 on the line.

Tiago last time out finished more than eight lengths behind Sam P. That is an awfully big deficit to make up, even at 20-1. A half-brother to Giacomo, Tiago is hard to endorse.

Medici Code faced weak competition on all-weather tracks in England. None of the horses he beat have distinguished themselves since. The 2007 Santa Anita Derby field is soft, but relative to what Medici Code has faced, it is a whole new world for the 30-1 outsider.

Ultimately, the 2007 Santa Anita Derby is baffling. When in doubt, one can usually identify the best horse. A mile and an eighth around two turns may not be his best distance, but the best horse is the most likely winner - King of the Roxy.