04/20/2005 11:00PM

Rundown on top Derby prospects

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The Kentucky Derby winner almost always displays sharp form, defined as a recent win or close finish in his last major prep. That is a trait shared by most of the top 10 horses in Daily Racing Form's latest installment of Derby Watch, however, so a closer look at their strengths and potential weaknesses can start the process of winnowing the field.

In order of their latest DRF rankings:

Bellamy Road - We are in murky water right away, because there is no frame of reference for evaluating his freak-out Wood Memorial. How do you predict what a 3-year-old colt will do four weeks after running a 120 Beyer Speed Figure in early April?

There was nothing phony about Bellamy Road's Wood. Aqueduct's main track was playing several ticks fast, but not absurdly so. There may have been a slight advantage to early speed, but Carter Handicap winner Forest Danger was last soon after the start and five lengths down at the first call on the same day, and the race after the Wood went to a last-to-first closer. Bellamy Road set fast fractions, but did so after settling into a rhythmic stride, and appeared quite relaxed.

Still, two major concerns:

* The last horse to win the Derby off just two preps was Sunny's Halo in 1983.

* His three route wins share the common thread of a clear lead at the pace call. How will he react against better quality early speed? Even if he makes the lead, what happens when someone looks him in the eye?

What if he is simply one of the ones?

Afleet Alex - He made a visually impressive four-wide rush past the leaders on the turn of the Arkansas Derby. He crushed his foes, with a new top Beyer of 108.

But here is the proverbial elephant in the room no one has mentioned: The pace-call time of 1:12.78 was slow. The race was sandwiched between entry-level allowance routes with respective fractions of 1:11.43 and 1:12.06. Later, the ungraded Northern Spur for 3-year-olds had a 1:11.51 six-furlong fraction.

Can a son of Northern Afleet stretch out to 10 furlongs and overtake what projects as a much stronger pace? That is extremely problematical, it says here.

Bandini - Lesson from the Blue Grass: When in doubt, give preference to the most logical contender in need of graded earnings, especially one from Eclipse-winning connections that is improving. I botched that royally last week.

Other than the fact Bandini has a 103 top Beyer, and 10 of the last 11 Derby winners had already run a 105, there are no serious knocks on Bandini, who has run at 1 1/8 miles three starts in a row.

High Fly - No horse since Needles in 1956 has won the Derby off a final prep five weeks out. Then again, this colt has logged the most furlongs (35) of any top 10 horses this season, so conditioning may not be a severe issue. If trainer Nick Zito could win the Travers with Birdstone off a 12-week layoff, you can be reasonably confident this colt will be ready.

High Fly's Tomlinson distance rating (262) is very low, though, and he has never raced outside of Florida.

High Limit - To my mind he's the weakest of the top 10. It's hard to envision him winning on the lead due to presence of Bellamy Road, and he has never passed a rival in a race.

Throw in a very low distance rating, just two preps, and one big-figure performance in a Louisiana Derby aided by a speed bias, and it's hard to build a case for him.

Noble Causeway - As with stablemate High Fly, he'll have five weeks between starts, but he has Zito at the helm and considerable race-day mileage (34 furlongs) under his belt this season.

An upward-moving line of Beyers and a late-rallying style make Noble Causeway an intriguing horse at a price, particularly for the underneath positions of exotic wagers.

Greeley's Galaxy - He's improving each time out, and he turned in a strong prep leaving the Illinois Derby field for dead.

Moreover, he has one of the top distance ratings, and will be a square price.

Just one problem. Though the owner is ready to supplement for $200,000, the horse can run only if fewer than 20 nominees are entered. That is a shame considering his obvious virtues and all the dead wood that will be given first preference.

Rockport Harbor - Foot problems and a blood clot in his neck have limited him to just one race this season, but if he wins Saturday's Lexington - a race that produced 1999 Derby upsetter Charismatic and 2002 runner-up Proud Citizen - he will have raced a total of 17 furlongs as a 3-year-old, the same total as probable favorite Bellamy Road.

A huge gray colt, Rockport Harbor is not the best gate horse. He was throwing his head around prior to the start of the Remsen, but the gate opened at a fortuitous moment just when he had been straightened by an assistant starter. His running line from the Rebel is misleading in that he broke awkwardly and was next to last before looping the field around the first turn.

Upgrade the chances of the stretch-runners if this front-end colt runs big in the Lexington and heads to Louisville.

Sun King - Simply stated, his no-show in the Blue Grass was the spring's most disappointing performance by a highly regarded 3-year-old, especially in view of how well the rest of Zito's entire stable is going.

Thunder Gulch (1995) and Sea Hero (1993) won the Derby after finishing fourth in the Blue Grass, which at this point is the most positive thing that can be said in Sun King's favor.

Wilko - At 7.00, he is well over the 4.00 guideline on dosage (remember dosage?). With 11 losses from 14 starts, no triple-digit Beyers, and a last-out loss behind 30-1 and 64-1 shots in a slow Santa Anita Derby, the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner would be a major surprise if he won the Derby.