04/12/2007 12:00AM

Road to Derby looks like the slow lane


NEW YORK - Street Sense's performance in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland will be the defining moment of the run-up to the 2007 Kentucky Derby, and not just because it is the Derby favorite's final prep. The simple truth is that after nearly two dozen other Derby preps this year, not one of his contemporaries has caught up to where Street Sense was last November, in what is turning into a puzzlingly slow series of performances leading up to the main event.

Last weekend there were opportunities for someone to take a long-awaited step forward into conventionally quick 3-year-old territory in either the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, or Illinois Derby. Instead, all three races earned Beyer Speed Figures in the lowly 98-to-100 range that has defined this group to date. In most years, horses who have not exceeded a Beyer of 100 are pretty automatic Derby throwouts, and some handicappers set the bar as high as 105 to stamp a horse a legitimate contender. This year, two of anyone's top five likely favorites for the race, Scat Daddy and Nobiz Like Shobiz, both will come into the Derby with career tops of just 98.

This is the first year since 1993 that neither the Florida Derby, Wood, nor Santa Anita Derby has yielded a Beyer in excess of 100. For the record, those 1993 slow-prep winners were Personal Hope, Bull Inthe Heather, and Storm Tower, who ran fourth, 11th, and 16th behind Sea Hero at Churchill Downs. The only other time since 1991 that even two of those races have earned only double-digit Beyers was in 2004, when Tapit and Friends Lake won the Wood and Florida Derby in slow performances and then ran ninth and 15th in the slop behind Smarty Jones.

Unlike some years when there has been ambiguity surrounding the speed figures earned in preps, this year's numbers have been straightforward. It's the quality of the division's leaders that's hard to make sense of, and horseplayers will have their hands full on Derby Day deciding what to do with a full field of horses whose achievements are so disparate but whose speed figures are so closely bunched together.

It seems imprudent to marry yourself to a Derby horse at single-digit odds who has never managed a triple-digit Beyer, but it also seems counterintuitive to dismiss some of the most accomplished colts in the crop. Scat Daddy has won the Sanford, Champagne, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby, while Nobiz Like Shobiz has a Remsen and a Wood under his belt. Slow, mediocre horses simply don't have those kind of resumes. They make perfect sense as prime Derby contenders if you just ignore their clockings.

It's tempting to correlate the decline in these prep figures with the more laid-back style of training Derby horses now in vogue, with most Derby horses having half as many preps and twice as long a layoff before the race as they did a generation ago. Everyone's terrified of training too hard and peaking too soon. It's possible that a bunch of them will suddenly make a 10-point Beyer jump on Derby Day, but that would be a first.

Street Sense may have been last weekend's biggest winner staying in his stall. His 108 winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall has yet to be approached this season, and if he wins the Blue Grass at all impressively he is going to be an unusually strong and solid Derby favorite. On the other hand, trainer Carl Nafzger is a master of getting his horses to peak for major races, not their antecedents, and it will not be shocking if Street Sense isn't fully cranked for his final prep. Add in that the race is being run on Polytrack, where slower-paced races tend to produce lower final-time speed figures, and it's quite possible we'll have another mild winning Beyer.

If, on the other hand, Street Sense moves forward off his winning season debut in the Tampa Bay Derby, even without getting all the way back to his Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he'll have an edge on his principal rivals without having peaked or returned to his best race - a formidable combination in a year where no one else is exactly shattering stopwatches.

The mediocre figures earned in last weekend's major preps also add some appeal to Curlin, who will be favored to win Saturday's Arkansas Derby in just his third career start. The sky seems the limit on this colt's raw talent, after earning a 101 Beyer in his debut and then a respectable 97 stretching out to two turns to win the Rebel by daylight while racing very greenly. While it still seems wildly improbable that any contemporary horse can win the Kentucky Derby in just his fourth career start, while also becoming the first in more than a century not to have raced as a 2-year-old, the workmanlike rather than brilliant quality of the crop to date makes the far-fetched scenario seem slightly more plausible.