03/31/2005 1:00AM

Lots of good reasons to like Vicarage at 6-1


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - High-profile stakes races provide rare betting opportunities - largely from other bettors being swayed by publicized prerace comments from trainers and jockeys.

By looking at the data, and not at the hype, what do the past performances for Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park suggest? Clearly, the race is no slam dunk for likely favorite High Fly, even following the late defections of Bandini and Closing Argument. Vicarage, listed at 6-1 on the track morning line, is my choice to upset.

Vicarage has Eclipse-winning connections in his corner - jockey John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher - but it is his hidden class and rapid improvement that lead me to believe he can win the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby.

Speed crazy as a 2-year-old, Vicarage has settled down as a 3-year-old, rating more kindly in all three of his races this year. He rallied from seventh with a six-wide trip to win an entry-level allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, followed that race with an even third in the Hutcheson, and then leaped forward in finishing a clear second to the unbeaten High Limit in the Louisiana Derby at odds of 21-1.

It was that race that revealed his potential. Racing two turns on dirt for the first time, he was the only horse in the Louisiana Derby who got remotely close to the winner. He pressured him to the top of the stretch before High Limit drew away to score by four lengths.

Most inexperienced routers would have quit after having a quality horse such as High Limit spurt away from them. Yet Vicarage pulled away from the pack, finishing 3 3/4 lengths in front of third-place Storm Surge.

Vicarage ran quickly, too, earning a 98 Beyer Speed Figure, just off the 99 Beyer that High Fly received for winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. Despite the competitive Beyer, the public will likely view it with skepticism. Many bettors snobbishly view racing at Fair Grounds as minor league in comparison to Gulfstream.

Furthermore, there is a consensus among handicappers and horsemen that the Louisiana Derby was a weak race this year. I beg to differ. Carrying a $600,000 purse, double that of the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, the Louisiana Derby attracted horses from such accomplished trainers as Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, Patrick Biancone, Steve Asmussen, Pletcher, and Bobby Frankel.

Going in, the race may not have had big-name horses and big figures. But that does not mean they will not become big names in the near future. High Limit, making his first start for Frankel in the Louisiana Derby, has as much potential as any 3-year-old, and Vicarage, a son of 1999 Florida Derby winner Vicar, had a right to improve when stretched out.

High Limit ran a 105 Beyer, among the top Beyers recorded by a 3-year-old this year, and the field was strung out - which further hints of the quality of the top two runners. The first- through fourth-place finishers were separated by 8 1/2 lengths. In checking the results of this race going back to 1992, only one Louisiana Derby over that stretch was so strung out at the finish - 9 1/2 lengths separated the first- through fourth-place finishers in 1996, the year Grindstone won both the Louisiana and Kentucky derbies.

Vicarage has faults, as virtually all longshots do. He has never won a stakes race, and he has finished behind Florida Derby longshots Evil Minister and Park Avenue Ball in some of his races.

Meanwhile, High Fly has already won two stakes and is 4 for 5 lifetime. He is also drawn inside Vicarage, suggesting he will likely enjoy a two-wide trip stalking the front-running B. B. Best.

The inside draw benefits High Fly in terms of being able to save ground, but it may force his rider, Jerry Bailey, to have to move earlier than he would like if Vicarage advances on his outside.

Not that the Florida Derby is a two-horse race - it is not. B. B. Best, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by High Fly when third in the Fountain of Youth, might find himself alone on the lead. And there are several other nice 3-year-olds in the field, including Noble Causeway. He is 2 for 2 since being stretched out to two turns, and he gets the fence, which should better allow him to stay within range of the front-runners.

Vicarage, however, looms the most likely upsetter. He is a clear overlay at 6-1 odds or higher.