02/06/2003 12:00AM

Next Derby winner yet to tip his hand

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The bell sounds for Round 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager next week. That is a lucky break for anyone who was contemplating a wager on Vindication, because it was announced Thursday that the undefeated 2-year-old champ and winter-book Derby favorite is out of training with an injured suspensory.

Meanwhile, Toccet, a graded stakes winner coast to coast last fall and widely regarded as a match for the champ on his best effort, came out of the Hollywood Futurity with ankle problems. Whether he will run for the roses is touch-and-go at this point, and we probably won't know anything definitive about his status until the end of February.

What's more, earlier this week it was reported that the well-connected Powerful Touch, second in a photo in the recent Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, is off the Derby trail due to a tender right-hind foot.

So that's three down and 443 early Triple Crown nominees to go, if you're trying to come up with the Derby winner by the time Pool 1 closes next Sunday.

Do yourself a favor and surrender to the chaos. Take the easy way out and bet the "Field" in Pool 1. It's not going to pay much. The odds on the field in Pool 1 have declined every year, from 5-1 in the inaugural 1999 Future Wager, the year Charismatic rose from the claiming ranks to win two-thirds of the Crown, down to 7-2 in 2000, 3-1 in 2001, and 2.80-1 last year. That's okay, just think of a field bet as a kind of deferred annuity, one that comes due the first Saturday evening in May.

You probably won't have to sweat it out, either. Of the 23 single-horse entries in Pool 1 last year, only a handful - Request for Parole, Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, Johannesburg, and Saarland - made it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs. The way things are going so far, the total is odds-on to be even less this season.

At this point anyone who says he has a clue as to who the top contenders are is probably either lying, delusional, or both.

Kafwain? He looked awesome Beyering 114 to win last weekend's San Vicente Stakes. But according to Daily Racing Form pedigree expert Lauren Stich, he is "on the long list of talented 3-year-olds who may win their share of stakes races up to 1 1/8 miles, but who will be far less effective beyond that distance."

D. Wayne Lukas? He has 23 nominees. Besides Scrimshaw, can you name one?

What about Sky Mesa, who was 3 for 3 last year and a late scratch from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile? Reportedly, he has had two workouts and will not make Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth card next Saturday. That means you'll still be flying blind with the 2002 Hopeful and Lane's End Breeders' Futurity winner if you think he's the goods.

At this point, recent history suggests that trying to figure out the Derby winner in February is guesswork, and not even educated guesswork.

Pool 1 closes next Sunday, shortly after Fair Grounds's Risen Star Stakes. Can I get a show of hands as to how many eagle-eyed observers jumped on the War Emblem bandwagon after that colt ran sixth, beaten nearly 10 lengths at 38-1, in last year's Risen Star?

Right.

As for the other horses who ran well in Triple Crown races last year, here's what they had accomplished by mid-February:

Proud Citizen (second in Derby, third in Preakness): He was still in mothballs after losing the Sanford and Hopeful by a combined 21 lengths the previous summer. Lost his 3-year-old debut, the Santa Anita Derby, by nine lengths on April 6.

Perfect Drift (third in the Derby): His last race going into Pool 1 was a runner-up finish in something called the "WEBN Frog," a $49,000 stakes race at Turfway Park.

Magic Weisner (second in Preakness): He was fresh off a victory in the Goss Stryker, that $60,000 stakes at Laurel restricted to Maryland-breds that is always a hotbed of 3-year-old activity. (Not!)

Sarava (Belmont Stakes winner): He didn't make his first start as a 3-year-old until April 14, when second in an entry-level allowance at Keeneland. His juvenile campaign consisted of three losses on turf in Great Britain, beaten a combined 29 lengths; a maiden win at 36-1 in his U.S. debut at Churchill Downs in the fall; and a runner-up finish in an entry-level allowance at Turfway Park in December.

Medaglia d'Oro (second in Belmont): He had just returned from a two-month layoff to win a six-furlong maiden race at Oaklawn Park as a second-time starter, for trainer David Vance.

It's fair to say the above horses weren't exactly household names at this early stage - not even in the household of the most fanatical horseplayers.

Who will be the 3-year-old on everyone's lips come springtime? If form holds, it will be a horse like Real Quiet, or Charismatic, or War Emblem, who impressed nobody at 2, and is probably still lurking well below everyone's radar screen.