04/03/2003 12:00AM

Natural progress is what we're talking about

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Conventional analysis says that when six horses are bunched within three lengths of each other at the finish, it probably was a bad race.

Is that what the San Felipe Stakes was March 16, a bad race? If so, then handicappers might be in trouble Saturday, because picking the winner of the Santa Anita Derby is based largely on studying what transpired three weeks earlier in the San Felipe. And the truth is, the San Felipe was not pretty.

Buddy Gil, blocked much of the stretch, gutted it out and won by a nose. The runner-up, Atswhatimtalknbout, was never in the race until deep stretch, when his late surge came up short. Brancusi, an ordinary maiden-race winner, still held the lead in deep stretch at 48-1. He lost by only three-quarters of a length.

Even overmatched 86-1 shot Logician, who entered the San Felipe with a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 88, was in the thick of it late despite racing four wide start to finish. He lost more ground than the two-length margin of defeat. The beaten favorite, Domestic Dispute, was imprudently rated, uncorked a crazy wide rally on the far turn, and lost by only three lengths. He finished a nose in front of distance-challenged Siberland.

That's six horses bunched together. So was the San Felipe a bad race? If it was, then some handicappers might consider Atswhatimtalknbout vulnerable Saturday as the 9-5 favorite. Same with Buddy Gil, the 5-2 second choice.

The bunched-up San Felipe is one reason the trainer of the favorite, Ron Ellis, said, "There's probably people who still think he's not real."

Can't blame them. Skepticism is a healthy handicapping strategy. As for the San Felipe, was the race really that bad, or did it just look that way? It is a key concern, because five of the 10 Santa Anita Derby starters ran in the San Felipe.

Speed-figure makers saw the San Felipe as unexceptional. Run over a good track that played on the slow side, it received a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 102. Pace handicapping expert Tom Brohamer awarded the race an above-par pace figure of 114, but a below-par speed figure of 109 (par is 110). Thoro-Graph gave the winner a "2," the runner-up "2 1/4." Based on figures, the San Felipe was a good race, nothing more.

Nevertheless, numbers do not account for visual interpretation. And there is significant difference between the 1 1/16-mile distance of the San Felipe and the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Santa Anita Derby. The longer the race, the less likely the imitators will stick around. In the San Felipe, the genuine contenders were only just starting to separate from the pretenders. Suddenly, the finish line came up and the race was over.

It is true that Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout finished only three-quarters in front of the others, but the margin should have been more, and probably will be Saturday.

If Buddy Gil had gotten clear at the quarter pole instead of being stuck behind traffic, surely he would have won. His victory in the 1 1/16-mile race was legitimate. And yet Atswhatimtalknbout was only getting warmed up at the distance. Had the San Felipe been farther, like the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, fast-finishing Atswhatimtalknbout likely would have been a clear winner.

Beyond his authoritative finish, stamina-laced pedigree, long stride, and outstanding physical appearance, there was another reason to be impressed by Atswhatimtalknbout's runner-up effort: intent. While trainer Ellis and jockey David Flores hoped to win the San Felipe, their primary motive was to gain seasoning by rating the colt, have him get dirt kicked in his face, allow him to finish and, hopefully, act like a colt who wants to run on.

Atswhatimtalknbout did all that and more. After spotting his field nine positions by taking back to last in the field of 10, he had to work to reach contention, and work harder yet through the lane. Atswhatimtalknbout nearly got there, despite the San Felipe being little more than a prep. The race sets him up perfectly.

Atswhatimtalknbout must improve again Saturday, because he faces a bounty of potentially good 3-year-olds. Kafwain was compromised by inside-speed biases in his last two routes, Ocean Terrace is undefeated, and beaten favorite Domestic Dispute might be afforded another chance after his unusual trip.

But in this formful race (44 percent winning favorites, including 10 of the last 20), authenticity stands up.

Trainer Bob Baffert starts three - Kafwain, Domestic Dispute, and Indian Express. A four-time Santa Anita Derby winner, Baffert knows what he is talking about when he explains how to analyze the nine-furlong race.

"If they all finish together - three or four in a line - that's not good," Baffert said. "But in the Santa Anita Derby, somebody can draw away."

On Saturday at Santa Anita, that somebody is an improving colt named Atswhatimtalknbout.