04/06/2006 12:00AM

New surprises spring up every April


NEW YORK - One down, four to go.

Barbaro's victory in the Florida Derby a week ago made him the first winner from the five major preps that will define this year's Kentucky Derby class. The second and third come Saturday with the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby, and the quintet concludes next weekend with the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. There are a couple of other possible feeders, such as Saturday's Illinois Derby and the Last Chance Saloon known as the Lexington at Keeneland on April 22, but the big five are sure to yield the Derby favorite.

At the moment, it might seem a very safe bet that the Derby favorite will not be emerging from the Wood. The morning-line favorite, Bob and John, has been running well in California but has been no match for the three Santa Anita Derby favorites. Bob and John was an unthreatening third to Brother Derek last December in the Hollywood Futurity. Last time out, he was third in the San Felipe to A. P. Warrior and Point Determined, the second and third choices to Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby. So even if Bob and John were to win the Wood, it's hard to see him going off as the Derby favorite.

The charm of this time of year, though, is that things can change awfully quickly. A year ago, it seemed like an even surer thing that the Derby favorite would not be one of the seven very ordinary-looking runners who lined up for the 2005 Wood. The narrow 2.55-1 favorite at post time was a colt with nothing but a two-other-than allowance victory to his credit as a 3-year-old and who was widely considered to be no better than the third or fourth best prospect in his own stable. Then Bellamy Road went out and ran the fastest nine furlongs in Aqueduct history, winning by 17 1/2 lengths and earning a gargantuan Beyer Speed Figure of 120. He went to the post in Louisville as the 5-2 favorite in a field of 19.

Nobody expected or could have predicted the race that Bellamy Road ran in the Wood. His trainer, Nick Zito, turned to friends just before the race and said, "I just hope he runs okay." He wasn't being coy. Horseplayers too often think that trainers know exactly how their horses are going to run. That isn't the case, especially when it comes to 3-year-olds in the spring, who can and do shock bettors and horsemen with sudden and spectacular improvement.

It's no cinch that Bob and John will even be favored in the Wood. Keyed Entry, who missed by just a neck in the Gotham last time out, sports two higher Beyers and is trained by Todd Pletcher, whom New Yorkers overbet even more than they overbet Bob Baffert, who trains Bob and John. The third choice will be Deputy Glitters, who has swapped decisions with Pletcher's Bluegrass Cat at Tampa Bay Downs in his last two starts. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this Wood will be getting a better line on so many far-flung Derby hopefuls whose past performances run through this field. The three Wood favorites have never faced one another, but combined they have faced more than half of the other Top 25 prospects on Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch.

Sensible horseplayers will probably use all three Wood favorites in a $500,000-guaranteed pick four at Aqueduct that also includes the Bay Shore and the Carter Handicap. Somewhat less than sensibly, I will also include Jazil, who was right there with Corinthian two starts back and then ran so badly in the Fountain of Youth that I'm willing to cross it out. Also, in his second and third career starts last fall at Aqueduct, Jazil made two visually impressive stretch runs in races where he seemed hopelessly beaten, losing by a nose to Steppenwolfer on the main track and then winning an off-the-grass race moved to the inner track. Perhaps those huge finishes were optical illusions, but it sure looked like there was something special going on both times.

Jazil comes into the Wood with a career Beyer top of 86, which is 16 to 24 points lower than four of his eight opponents have managed lately and may make backing him an exercise in futility. On the other hand, Bellamy Road improved 24 points off his career top in last year's Wood, and it's that time of year again.