04/09/2002 12:00AM

Real Derby threats run this weekend


LAS VEGAS - Finding the winner of the Kentucky Derby begins with eliminating the pretenders, and there are plenty of pretenders who have little or no chance at Churchill Downs this year. The Derby is completely wide open, and last weekend's prep races exposed a slew of pretenders. The 2002 Derby winner will come from the Wood Memorial Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes, or Arkansas Derby.

Weak Santa Anita Derby

Came Home (Gone West) is a colt of unmistakable quality, but even his game victory in the Santa Anita Derby can't mask the fact that he was at his absolute limit at the end of the 1 1/8-mile race. Gone West, one of the world's most successful stallions, is strictly a speed influence. Despite Commendable's unlikely victory in a bizarre running of the Belmont Stakes, runners by Gone West are best up to 1 1/8 miles. In addition, Came Home's damsire, Clever Trick, is another potent source of speed. Kept to distances at one mile and under, Came Home could develop into something special, on dirt or grass, but he is not Derby material.

Mayakovsky (Matty G) is another colt with exceptional speed but was exposed as a miler in the Santa Anita Derby and will likely skip the Kentucky Derby and aim for the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap. Like Came Home, Mayakovsky gets a double dose of speed and very little stamina from his sire, Matty G and damsire, Raise a Man.

If Easy Grades (Honor Grades), despite his equipment problems, couldn't defeat Came Home in a painfully slow Santa Anita Derby, his chances of succeeding in Kentucky are nil. Easy Grades would be a contender if the Derby were on turf.

Lusty Latin (El Prado) was slammed at the start of the Santa Anita Derby, and his flying third-place finish, while visually impressive, was a result of the front-runners collapsing.

Preakness hopefuls

A victory in any Triple Crown race, combined with his Illinois Derby victory, would snare War Emblem (Our Emblem) a cool $1 million bonus, and he is scheduled to bypass the Derby and aim for the Preakness, which better suits his running style. The announcement of a bone chip may be the reason Repent never seemed to develop into the kind of colt he promised at 2. The Derby dream is over for the very talented Repent, but hopefully he will return to the races.

Both Marasca (Take Me Out) and Equality (Mt. Livermore), who finished one-two in the Aventura Stakes, are not going to the Derby, but may have designs on the Preakness. Marasca is a full brother to Louisiana Derby winner Kimberlite Pipe while Equality is very closely related to Canadian Horse of the Year Peaks and Valleys. Both are developing quickly and should not be ignored if they get to the Preakness.

Over a yielding turf, Johannesburg finished second in the Gladness Stakes to the older group-winning filly Rebelline by a short head in a good effort in his 3-year-old debut. While the Gladness Stakes is not the prize, Johannesburg was still expected to win, and his loss casts great doubt about his chances in the Kentucky Derby. Bred to be a sprinter, Johannesburg proved he was much more than that with his authoritative victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 1 1/16 miles, but his Derby status is now more uncertain than ever.

Derby goes through New York

Since being moved to a calendar spot three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial has returned to its former glory as one of the most important Derby preps. It has produced Derby winners Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos, and this weekend's Wood Memorial may once again yield the Derby winner, and the most likely candidate is Saarland.

Not bred to be precocious at 2, Saarland developed late as a juvenile and won the Remsen Stakes. By Unbridled, the sire of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone and Preakness winner Red Bullet, Saarland is out of Alabama Stakes winner Versailles Treaty, who twice finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Much has been made of the fact that Saarland will only have two races leading up to the Derby, but Aptitude (A.P. Indy), who was bred to relish the Derby distance, had only two Derby preps in 2000.

Aptitude won a maiden race on Jan. 1, then reappeared three months later and finished second to Red Bullet in the Gotham Stakes. Aptitude then ran third to Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet in the Wood Memorial before his strong second in the Kentucky Derby behind Fusaichi Pegasus.

Saarland will be facing no such monsters.