04/17/2005 11:00PM

Looks like a capacity crowd

Shawn Coady/Coady Photography
Afleet Alex (second from right) comes home a winner in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, earning a Beyer Figure of 108 in a career-best performance.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Powerful victories by Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby and Bandini in the on Saturday helped further define the leading contenders for the May 7 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, but with less than three weeks until Derby Day, there are still more than 20 horses pointing for the 131st running of America's greatest horse race.

When it comes to the Derby field, size matters. If more than 20 horses enter the race, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races. This year, there is a potential twist to that rule. Greeley's Galaxy, the winner of the Illinois Derby, was not nominated to the Derby in January or March, so he would have to be supplemented to the race for $200,000. The Derby's conditions state that supplemental nominees cannot knock out an original nominee, even if the supplemental runner has more earnings in graded stakes races. Therefore, the only way Greeley's Galaxy will make it is if there are fewer than 20 other horses entered on May 4.

Much can still happen between now and entry day. Defections frequently are common as the race nears, and there was a significant one Monday. Godolphin Racing announced on its website that Blues and Royals, the winner of the UAE Derby, was out of the Derby because of a respiratory infection.

"The horse's welfare has to come first, and it just would not be possible for us to get him ready," said Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager. Crisford said Blues and Royals would have a United States campaign later this year, based at Belmont Park.

There is one last chance for horses to for the Derby, in the Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday. Rockport Harbor, who was forced to miss the Arkansas Derby after developing a blood clot in his neck, should be a heavy favorite in the Lexington against the likes of Going Wild, Sort It Out, and Storm Surge. Rockport Harbor arrived at Keeneland on Monday after traveling from Oaklawn Park.

Otherwise, the final round of preps for the Derby are complete, with Bellamy Road, the winner of the Wood Memorial, along with Afleet Alex and Bandini emerging as the top three choices for the Derby.

Afleet Alex turned in the best race of his career with an overpowering victory in the at Oaklawn Park. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108. Tim Ritchey, the trainer of Afleet Alex, said the colt would be sent by van from Oaklawn to Churchill, most likely on Wednesday.

"He likes riding on vans," Ritchey said Sunday morning. "He just about runs you over going up the ramp to get in it."

Although Jeremy Rose rode Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby, and has never finished worse than second on the colt, Ritchey would not commit to Rose for the Derby. It seems Ritchey and the Cash Is King partnership which owns Afleet Alex will reach out to several better-known riders first. As of now, jockeys such as Corey Nakatani, Alex Solis, and Patrick Valenzuela don't have commitments. Gary Stevens is not available because he will ride Noble Causeway, trainer Nick Zito said. Edgar Prado had been riding both Noble Causeway and Sun King, and chose to remain with Sun King.

"We have a couple of different options, and Jeremy is definitely one of them," Ritchey said. "We've just got to think about what we're going to do, and what's best for the horse."

Rose, 26, wound up the leading rider at Oaklawn, with Afleet Alex putting him over the top. He has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby.

"Hopefully I'll get to ride him," Rose said. "I love riding the horse."

Afleet Alex would be Ritchey's first starter in the Derby. Ritchey was encouraged that Afleet Alex maintained his composure while being saddled outdoors on Saturday, a trait Ritchey believes will be beneficial at Churchill Downs.

"When I bought him as a 2-year-old, that was one of the things I liked. He's laid-back," Ritchey said. "At Timonium, there were three or four other 2-year-olds around him getting goofy, and he just stood there and looked at them. That impressed me. These horses need to handle a big crowd. The Derby's a bigger crowd, and my horse will have an advantage."

By contrast, the scene Saturday seemed to unnerve Greater Good, the winner of the Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes. He was extremely washy while being saddled in the infield, and continued to sweat profusely in the post parade. He finished fifth.

"He hates that centerfield," said Bob Holthus, who trains Greater Good. "He hates it, and I hate it. It's such a foreign element. I know they saddle outdoors at Keeneland, but that's behind the racetrack. There's no comparison."

Greater Good flew to Churchill Downs on Sunday. Holthus said Greater Good came out of the race in good physical condition, but Holthus said he would not commit to the Derby until he sees how Greater Good progresses over the next week and a half.

"We've got a couple of weeks to worry about what to do," Holthus said. "We don't need to worry about graded earnings, so if we want to run, we can."

Flower Alley, who was second, and Andromeda's Hero, who was third, are the only other Arkansas Derby runners still under consideration for the Kentucky Derby.

Seven horses went to the post in the Blue Grass, and it appears the first five will all go on to the Derby. Bandini won the race with a Beyer Figure of 103. Runner-up High Limit as well as Closing Argument, Sun King, and Consolidator all are still pointing to the Kentucky Derby.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Bandini, said the cantankerous colt "came out of the race great."

Bobby Frankel, the trainer of High Limit, thinks his colt can move forward off the Blue Grass.

"He'd only been out once this year," Frankel said, referring to High Limit's win in the Louisiana Derby. "He needed a hard race, and he got one. I needed to put a little fitness in him for the Derby, and this race accomplished that."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Mary Rampellini

3-year-old graded stakes earnings

The leading contenders for the 131st Kentucky Derby based on earnings in graded stakes races, the tiebreaker if the field exceeds the maximum 20 entries:

1Afleet Alex$1,245,000
3High Fly 796,500
5Bellamy Road570,000
7High Limit510,000
8Flower Alley500,000
9Buzzards Bay480,000
10Sun King402,500
11Greater Good391,344
13Rockport Harbor235,700
14Noble Causeway190,000
16Storm Surge182,640
17Closing Argument165,000
18General John B150,000
19Wild Desert131,320
20Spanish Chesnut124,000
21Andromeda's Hero115,000
23Going Wild47,500
24Southern Africa32,790
25Sort It Out 0
26Greeley's Galaxy *300,000

* - not nominated to Triple Crown