04/30/2002 11:00PM

Never have so many defied the rules

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COLUMBIA, Md. - In this year's Kentucky Derby, somebody's going to break the rules. An independent-minded group of trainers is challenging many of the proven, conventional paths and formulas for winning America's greatest race. Past history seems to mean nothing to them. They are determined to find their own way to the winner's circle.

Here are a few of the rules under challenge:

Foreign preparation: Three horses are being prepared outside the United States: Castle Gandolfo, Essence of Dubai, and Johannesburg. This path has never produced a winner.

Layoffs: No horse in recent memory has won the Derby without having a race in the four weeks before the first Saturday in May. Yet Murray Johnson is sticking with his plan to give Perfect Drift a six-week break and bring him up to the Derby strictly off workouts. He's a serious contender, and might very well be the most compelling longshot in the field. But will workouts sustain him or Request for Parole, another layoff horse, in that final, testing one-eighth of a mile?

Lack of 2-year-old preparation: The conventional wisdom (and experience) says that you have to race at least a few times as a 2-year-old in order to build a foundation of stamina for the Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus undermined this rule to some extent, but Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro will be looking to shatter it completely. Buddha had only one race in September as a 2-year-old, and then didn't race again until Feb. 9. Medaglia d'Oro had his first career race on Dec. 7 - a pedestrian sprint at Turfway Park. Are they too lightly raced to survive the demands of the Kentucky Derby?

Figs and distance: The general rule is that the Beyer Speed Figures for a true Derby horse will improve as that horse stretches out in distance. But one of this year's top contenders, Came Home, has demonstrated precisely the opposite tendency. His figures have declined significantly as he has gone from seven furlongs up to one mile and finally up to 1 1/8 miles in the Santa Anita Derby. His Beyers have dropped from 111 to 106 to an alarmingly low 96. When he struggled home in the Santa Anita Derby, I thought his connections would be best advised to skip the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. He's a tremendous talent, but with apparent distance limitations. Unfortunately, the Derby is hard to resist. Does Came Home have enough class to overcome his obvious dislike for longer distances?

The Beyer standard of measurement: The average winning Beyer Speed Figure for the Derby is around 108 or 109, and the typical winner has demonstrated the potential to run such a speed figure in at least one race before the Derby. But this year only a small handful of horses have shown that they can run anything like a 108 or 109 at 1 1/8 miles or farther. Only two horses have really shown this potential: Buddha earned a 106 after a tough trip in an allowance race at Gulfstream, and then came back with a 105 in the Wood Memorial; and Medaglia d'Oro has earned back-to-back Beyers of 107 and 105.

In contrast, one of the favorites, Harlan's Holiday, has had some perfect trips and still hasn't earned a figure higher than 103. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro stand out from the field in terms of speed figures, but will their relative lack of experience cost them in Kentucky?

Special medical: Saarland, who has never run an impressive race and has never earned a triple-digit Beyer, comes to the Derby fresh from minor surgery to relieve some apparent breathing difficulties. How many Derby winners have had such a medical procedure so close to the actual race? Can this minor operation turn Saarland from a bit of a disappointment into an authentic Derby contender?

This year's Derby trainers have shown a fondness for the road less traveled. And chances are that one of them will succeed in beating the conventional wisdom - all of which add to the unpredictability already clouding the 2002 Derby. It's true that rules are made to be broken, and this year an unusual number of Derby trainers seemed to have gotten the same idea: Each one wants to defy the conventions and break the Derby mold - to win in a new way, their own way. That makes this year's Derby puzzle even more fascinating than usual.