02/08/2007 1:00AM

Planning for the future(s)

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The first of three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools hosted by Churchill Downs will be open for business Thursday, Feb. 8, through Sunday, Feb. 11.

As experienced players know, each pool begins with an opening odds line for 23 selected Derby prospects along with a 24th betting number for the "all others" mutuel field. This year there were 450 Derby nominees, so No. 24 includes 427 horses, plus any others that may be added as late nominees in March or supplemented to the Derby the week of the race.

Derby Future Wager payoffs for Pool 1 will reflect the closing odds Sunday evening. Past performances for the 23 individual betting interests can be found in the Thursday through Sunday editions of Daily Racing Form.

While in most years the mutuel field in Pool 1 has been a good backup bet to any individual Kentucky Derby Future Wager plays, some value occasionally can be found in the futures pools offered in Las Vegas, where each of the 450 nominees is assigned its own price.

For example, while 2-year-old champion Street Sense and the equally high-profile Nobiz Like Shobiz are likely to be 6-1 or less in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, the Hilton and Bally's race books in Vegas were listing Nobiz Like Shobiz at 7-1 and Street Sense at 9-1, respectively, on Feb. 4, the day after Nobiz Like Shobiz impressively won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream to kick off his 2007 campaign.

Even so, with so much yet to occur on the long, winding road to Louisville, futures are best used as a vehicle to play relatively obscure, talented prospects that have yet to become household names.

One such horse just beginning to gain momentum is the Bob Baffert-trained Air Commander, who was not even listed among the bottom-of-the-barrel 300-1 shots on the Bally's and Hilton lists.

Since he has only won a maiden race, I make Air Commander's playable odds 60-1. I like him as a long-range prospect for the reasons cited among my top dozen Derby prospects listed below. Unless otherwise noted, the odds are those posted on Feb. 4 by the Hilton and Bally's race books.

1. Nobiz Like Shobiz, 7-1: Strong, large-bodied colt with distance breeding in a Derby winner's hands (Barclay Tagg) is learning important lessons in every start. One of the best 3-year-old prospects I've ever seen at this early stage of his 3-year-old season. Yet, the quoted odds are uninviting.

2. Street Sense, 9-1: Won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with an exciting burst of acceleration coming out of the final turn. Is scheduled for the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on March 3 at Gulfstream and only one additional Derby prep race. Yet, despite such a limiting schedule, Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger knows his colt and has to be taken seriously.

3. Ravel, 22-1: Todd Pletcher (and assistant Mike McCarthy) have plenty to work with in this son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus out of an A.P. Indy mare. Improved smartly in the nine-furlong Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 3 with a steady rally in 36 and change through the final three furlongs. Definitely headed in the right direction and may be a borderline play at the quoted odds.

4. Circular Quay, 25-1: A Pletcher trainee who is being handled methodically for his seasonal debut in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 10 - while Pool 1 is in progress. Was a very good 2-year-old, who made a wide run for second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile against the inside-lane bias to signal his ability to handle two turns and Churchill Downs.

5. Stormello, 35-1: A bridesmaid several times last summer, but improved noticeably when sent two turns in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita. Returned from a fade job in the Breeders' Cup at Churchill with a victory in the Hollywood Futurity around two turns in December. Good overall speed and somewhat underrated by many.

6. Great Hunter, 30-1: Acted like a potential Derby colt last summer and ran well enough in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to lay a good foundation for his 3-year-old season. Another who needs to surface within the next few weeks or he will face a difficult task.

7. Air Commander, 50-1 (My odds): Graduated with noticeable improvement in his third career outing going 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Feb. 4. Bred to relish longer distances and is in the hands of three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert. A good candidate for futures play.

8. Hard Spun, 12-1: Remained undefeated in four outings by cruising to victory over weaker in the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in January. A stiffer test is likely to come in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 19, a week after Pool 1 closes.

9. Day Pass, 50-1: Was a promising winner of the one-mile Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct in November and is well bred for route distances. Could join the Triple Crown chase with one good try in February or early March.

10. Notional, 18-1: Doug O'Neill trainee was somewhat erratic before winning the one-mile San Rafael Stakes. His strong gallop-out implies he will relish extra furlongs.

11. Lawrence the Roman, 40-1: An undefeated New York-bred by long-winded Point Given. Has been dominant in his three career starts for trainer Dick Dutrow and is scheduled for the Whirlaway at Aqueduct on Feb. 10. A possible play if he runs well and remains at acceptable odds.

12. Any Given Saturday, 22-1: Promising winner of a two-turn allowance race at Keeneland last fall. Was second to the sidelined Tiz Wonderful and is scheduled for the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 17.

Another dozen worth keeping an eye on: Adore the Gold (40-1), a distance-bred winner of two sprint stakes, including the Swale at Gulfstream; Dreaming of Anna (50-1), 2006 champion juvenile filly ostensibly pointing for the Kentucky Derby, not the Kentucky Oaks; Rescue Party, (100-1, my odds), a lightly raced, stretch-running son of Monarchos trained by Shug McGaughey; Boutrous (50-1), who ran very well despite traffic problems in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields in January; Out of Gwedda (50-1), who galloped out strongly when second in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid stakes at Gulfstream; Liquidity (25-1), a good second in the Sham; Birdbirdistheword (20-1), winner of the Delta Jackpot trained by Ken McPeek; Drums of Thunder (50-1), a respectable second to Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Holy Bull; Belgravia (50-1), who flashed graded stakes talent late in 2006; Longley (200-1), a sharp graduate at Saratoga last summer, working well for trainer Graham Motion; Soaring By, (50-1), an impressive maiden winner with a good series of stamina workouts for Pletcher; and Minefield (50-1), who made a favorable impression late last year.

While the temptation may be strong to play the high-class Nobiz like Shobiz or Street Sense in Pool 1, realistically no individual horse is better than a 10-1 shot just to make the Derby, much less win it.