Updated on 09/16/2011 7:08AM

Realist lesson No. 1: Forget Came Home

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WASHINGTON - After Came Home won the Santa Anita Derby, his jockey, Chris McCarron, delivered this assessment of the colt: "He's got everything you need to win the Kentucky Derby. He has talent, class, and determination."

Not only did Came Home remain undefeated as a 3-year-old, but he scored his victory on a weekend when two of his major rivals faltered. Johannesburg suffered the first loss of his career, albeit a narrow one, at The Curragh in Ireland and it is uncertain if he will make the trip to Churchill Downs. Repent, the most formidable stretch-runner of his age group, flunked an important test when he was soundly defeated in the Illinois Derby and was taken out of the running altogether Monday because of a chipped bone in his left ankle.

Yet even though some evidence may suggest that Came Home's Derby prospects are on the rise, realists know otherwise. There is no blanket of roses in the colt's future. Most handicappers will not even respect him as a serious Derby contender after what they saw Saturday.

I say this even though I am an admirer of the California speedster and made him my early pick to win the Derby. Although he hardly has an ideal pedigree for 1 1/4 miles, Came Home has more raw talent than the other members of his generation, and superior talent can carry a horse a long way. (Bold Forbes was cut out to be a miler but held on to win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes because he was so much better than his peers.)

But we now know how far Came Home's raw talent can carry him: 1 1/8 miles, as long as he is facing poor competition. It is not merely doubtful that he can go another furlong in the Kentucky Derby. In my view, it is inconceivable that he could win May 4.

Although I am a steadfast believer in the importance of time and the usefulness of speed figures as a handicapping tool, I will be the first to admit that figures don't necessarily govern the Triple Crown races. Many other factors - conditioning, pedigree, and running style - may prove more significant than the time of a horse's previous races.

But no factor can possibly offset the fact that the Santa Anita Derby field was so slow.

Mayakovsky was considered Came Home's most formidable rival, even though there were significant doubts about his stamina, too. He went to the lead, while McCarron reserved Came Home behind him. Came Home has become a tractable racehorse this year - not a speed freak as he was as a 2-year-old - and this change has made him a more formidable runner.

On the final turn, as McCarron urged Came Home, the colt was having trouble gaining on the leader. But when Mayakovsky faltered as he turned into the stretch, Came Home rallied past him, fought off a challenge from Easy Grades, and drew off to a 2 1/4-length victory. Lusty Latin, a 47-1 shot, rallied to be third, and it was his proximity to the winner that ought to raise doubts - even among fans who are not speed handicappers - about the overall quality of the Santa Anita Derby.

Lusty Latin has won twice in his career - in a lowly maiden $32,000 claiming race and in the $30,000 Rattlesnake Stakes at Turf Paradise in Arizona. How did he manage to finish within three lengths of a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby? The time of Saturday's race provides the answer: Everybody else ran down to Lusty Latin's level.

An hour before the Santa Anita Derby, some second-tier older horses contested in the San Bernardino Stakes at the same distance, 1 1/8 miles, and Bosque Redondo won in a photo finish. These were the half-mile, six-furlong and final times for the two events:

* San Bernardino - 47.17 seconds, 1:11.15, 1:49.11

* Santa Anita Derby - 46.92 seconds, 1:10.95, 1:50.02

Not only was Came Home's final time nearly a full second slower than the other race at the distance, the final three-eighths of a mile of the stakes were run in 39.07 seconds - an extraordinarily slow time. The fractional breakdown suggests that Came Home wasn't really rallying to win; he was slowing down while everybody else was going even slower. His effort translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 96. In contrast, the last four Santa Anita Derbies produced winning figures of 110, 109, 111, and 110. Not since the 1995 Arkansas Derby has a major 3-year-old prep race been so slow.

The runners in the Santa Anita Derby are much inferior to their contemporaries. War Emblem earned a figure of 112 winning the Illinois Derby, though that may have been a once-in-a-lifetime effort. Medaglia d'Oro and Buddha will bring figures of 107 and 106, respectively, into Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, and both lightly raced colts are eligible to improve. The Kentucky Derby still appears wide open, and picking the winner will not be easy, but handicappers may begin by putting a big X over the name of Came Home.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post