04/16/2007 11:00PM

Possible Derby sleepers


After Street Sense's narrow defeat in a roughly run Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and Curlin's 10 1/2-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, both horses are certain to be among the top betting choices in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5. Likewise, Wood Memorial winner Nobiz Like Shobiz and Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy also figure to be well bet in the Derby on their overall consistency at the Grade 1 level.

Perhaps by post time, this quartet of seemingly solid contenders will be labeled the "Big Four" by the media. But, a deeper examination of the prospective starting field is sure to reveal a supporting cast of many intriguing upset threats, some of whom could spice up the exotic payoffs or even win.

Among them are major stakes winners Hard Spun, Cowtown Cat, Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Dominican, and Tiago, as well as the rapidly improving Chelokee, who was an unlucky third in the Florida Derby.

One by one, here are the positives and negatives I have cataloged for these seven horses, who have sufficient credentials to merit a very close look on Derby Day even though they are each likely to be offered at double digit odds.

* Any Given Saturday

Positives: His very sharp second to Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby after a convincing win in an earlier stakes at Tampa Bay Downs is solid evidence of sufficient talent to win the Derby.

Negatives: He weakened noticeably when hooked by Nobiz Like Shobiz in the upper stretch of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7, suggesting that he will need every bit of trainer Todd Pletcher's skill to recover his form for the Kentucky Derby. While Pletcher did just that with Bluegrass Cat, the runner-up to Barbaro in last year's Derby after a poor outing in the Blue Grass Stakes, Pletcher is 0 for 21 in Triple Crown races.

* Chelokee

Positives: Rapidly improving colt showed grit when he tried to overcome traffic problems entering the stretch to fire a solid late rally for third in Scat Daddy's Florida Derby. Trained by Michael Matz, who developed 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, Chelokee also galloped out past Scat Daddy a sixteenth of a mile beyond the Florida Derby finish line to suggest that Matz has something to work with heading to Louisville.

Negatives: Lacks sufficient earnings to assure a starting berth, and aside from his Florida Derby third has no other stakes experience. Might need more seasoning.

* Circular Quay

Positives: Pletcher-trained winner of 4 of 7 career starts won the Louisiana Derby on March 10 with an explosive rally. Just might be the strongest finisher in the Derby field and he runs well inside horses, which could help him save some ground in the oversized field.

Negatives: Relatively light-bodied son of 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch skipped over the early April prep races to be trained up to the Derby. This pushes the absentee envelope established by Barbaro (five weeks) to eight weeks away from the Derby. Moreover, he will come to the Derby with only two starts this year, a limited campaign that was successfully employed only once in the past 60 years - by trainer David Cross with Sunny's Halo in 1983.

* Cowtown Cat

Positives: Efficient winner of the Gotham at Aqueduct on March 10 and the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 7 has four prep races and tactical speed that will make him dangerous on Derby Day.

Negatives: Pletcher trainee has no real flaws other than he has not run as fast as several other contenders. In other words he must improve at least four or five lengths to match the best form of the leading contenders

* Dominican

Positives: Displayed a furious late rally to win the Blue Grass for his second stretch-running victory in two outings this year. In his five-length Rushaway Stakes score at Turfway Park on March 24, Dominican overcame a track bias that seemed to help horses maintain the lead through the stretch.

Negatives: All three of his career victories came on Polytrack, while he lost ground or ran evenly in his other four races. He is one of several contenders with only two prep races for this Derby.

* Great Hunter

Positives: Was a good 2-year-old and seemed much improved when he smoothly won the 1 1/16-mile Robert Lewis on March 3. He was bothered by a stubborn but weakening Teuflesberg while rallying in the competitive Blue Grass. With a cleaner trip, he probably would have been much closer than fifth, two lengths behind Dominican, in the tight pack at the wire.

Negatives: He is another with only two prep races for the Derby, and was soundly beaten by Street Sense in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

* Hard Spun

Positives: Winner of 5 of 6 made a strong positive impression winning the nine-furlong Lane's End at Turfway Park on March 24 with solid overall speed from an outer post. Reminded me of Smarty Jones that day.

Negatives: Being handled with kid gloves by trainer Larry Jones. Skipped over the Blue Grass and will come to the Derby after a six-week layoff.

* Tiago

Positives: Half-brother to 2005 Derby winner Giacomo came to life with his stretch-running victory in the Santa Anita Derby at 29-1 as if he might be a late factor at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. He is trained by John Shirreffs and ridden by Mike Smith, who combined to put Giacomo in the Derby winner's circle.

Negatives: A pace meltdown contributed to his Santa Anita Derby win and his final furlong was clocked in a modest 13 seconds. Will need a similar pace scenario and further improvement to become the first half-brother of a Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby.

Beyond the seemingly solid credentials of unbeaten Curlin, Juvenile champion Street Sense and the multiple Grade 1 winners Nobiz Like Shobiz and Scat Daddy - beyond even the positive form characteristics of the seven others listed above - reality says that few horses in the prospective Derby field of 18 to 20 will be an easy toss, especially from the superfecta.