05/03/2006 12:00AM

One opinion won't do in this race


PHILADELPHIA - After watching all the prep races, listening to all the connections, and trying to put everything into context, I have come to one conclusion about this Kentucky Derby.

Even though this appears impossibly difficult, there is one quite rational, mathematical approach that will take the guesswork out of the equation. One could make a very reasonable case based on Beyers that boxing Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint in exactas and in front of superfecta rundowns is a proper approach. Each horse has earned four consecutive triple-digit Beyers. The other 18 horses have 13 triple-digit Beyers among them. If this were the fifth race at Philadelphia Park, one would unload on such a proposition and be looking at exactas that would pay, say, $11 and $12. These exactas could pay $50 or $60 or more.

That imaginary Philadelphia race, of course, would have seven horses, three of which could not outrun a fat man. In the Derby, the other 18 horses make this somewhat more difficult.

Still, two obvious horses with four consecutive triple-digit Beyers, running styles that suggest they can sit and go, and jockeys who are not going to panic because it's the Derby is something to consider. And I am considering it.

I am also considering how to bet this race, and when I consider that, I have to consider Sinister Minister. I was in the old press box at Churchill Downs in 2002, when War Emblem came by the finish line the first time with a clear lead. I knew the race was over. Top figure. Clear lead. Just because it was the Derby did not mean that racing rule was going to be violated.

So what of Sinister Minister and that 116 Beyer? Yes, Keeneland is a speed-biased track, but it was not biased the day of the Blue Grass. Sinister Minister was just that good.

But is he good enough and fast enough to clear Sharp Humor, who was right off fractions of 22 seconds and 44.20 in the Swale Stakes, and Keyed Entry, who was in front in the Hutcheson Stakes after a half-mile 44 and six furlongs in 1:07.30? My general rule on horses like Sinister Minister is to gamble if there is just one horse to beat to the lead, but be very wary if there are two.

Thus, I will be using some tickets with Sinister Minister on top, not so many that I will feel badly if he can't make the front or gets caught in a duel and retreats, but enough that I won't be without a chance if he looks like Spend a Buck heading into the far turn.

And there is the Philadelphia theory. After the Flyers were eliminated Tuesday night in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the city's four professional sports teams have now gone a combined 88 seasons without a championship. The Sixers won the 1983 NBA championship. Since then, the city has had teams in three Stanley Cup finals, one World Series, one Super Bowl, and one NBA finals. And produced no championships.

Philly horses, however, have won four of the last six Triple Crown races. This keeps up, they are just going to move the whole series to the Pha.

That brings us to the unbeaten tandem of Barbaro and Showing Up, owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson. The Jacksons grew up in the Philly suburbs, went to Penn, and live on a lovely 190-acre farm just south of Wyeth Country in Chester County, 30 miles or so south of the city.

So, it's the Beyers or the speed or Philly. Or some combination of all three. Or Giacomo.

My advice is to forget last year's Derby. The fundamentals still apply. The 2005 Derby result was a fluke. Could there be another pace meltdown? Obviously. But that doesn't mean some horse has to come from nowhere to win the race. The right stalker, given the right ride, can win this Derby.

Brother Derek has the right style, but will face more opponents (19) in this race than in his last three races combined (14). Sweetnorthernsaint has faced 27 opponents in his last three starts, so you would think he might be a bit more prepared for the stampede. Barbaro has never been in a field with fewer than 11 horses, but he has never had more than one horse in front of him after a quarter-mile.

In this Derby, each answer leads to another question. Still, one must have an opinion. Mine is that I'm going to end up in supers that include the two Beyer horses on top, Sinister Minister on top, and the Philly horses on top, with some longshot closers sprinkled about in the second, third, and fourth spots.

This is not a race for just one opinion. This is a race where bet structure will matter much more than handicapping. And if the structure leads to the right super numbers, there is almost certainly going to be a significant payoff. When it's over and your friends ask if you had the winner, the answer is probably going to be no. But it's never really about that. It's about winning money.