04/04/2007 11:00PM

Sam P. should pick up the pieces

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NEW YORK - Saturday is last call for several 3-year-olds prepping for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, as the big races in the nation are the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby, both Grade 1, $750,000 events, and the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Meanwhile, the feature of the first Saturday of the Keeneland meet is the Grade 1 Ashland, while Oaklawn presents the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and Grade 2 Oaklawn handicaps.

Get tied on!

Santa Anita Derby

Liquidity, Level Red, and, at this distance, King of the Roxy are all expected to be early pace factors. That is the style they have to use to have their best opportunity to win. But the chances of each figure to be compromised by Black Seventeen. Black Seventeen is in way over his head in this spot, but he does have good sprint speed. His presence will make life miserable for the others who need to be close early, and gives this race the strong appearance of one that will be won from off the pace. That's why Sam P. looks like a solid play.

Sam P. can close effectively. He showed that last fall in Kentucky when a good second to Any Given Saturday and a decisive winner over Chelokee, who was an unlucky third in last week's Florida Derby. Sam P. ran the best race of his life Beyer Speed Figure-wise last time out when second in the Robert Lewis in his first attempt over the Santa Anita main track, and he is now primed for his best third start off a layoff. The addition of blinkers doesn't hurt, either.

For the record, in Saturday's other two big Derby preps: Although I remain a fan of Nobiz Like Shobiz and believe blinkers will really help him, I'm going with Any Given Saturday in the Wood. Considering the ground he lost due to his wide trip, he ran a winning race when beaten a nose by Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby. In the Illinois Derby, San Felipe winner Cobalt Blue looks like a likely winner at unappealing odds.

Apple Blossom Handicap

Round Pond will be the favorite, but even though she loves Oaklawn Park and boasts the kind of major victory in last fall's Breeders' Cup Distaff that none of her opponents can match, she is vulnerable. Round Pond's upset in the Breeders' Cup was really her only good race since she returned from a long absence last year, and that score was in no small part due to her riding the crest of a profound rail bias. Moreover, the way she gave way in her first start this year as the 2-5 favorite in the Rampart Handicap was not encouraging.

Although I feel Ermine will be a handful in this race, I'm looking for the upset with Baghdaria. At times last year, specifically in her Iowa and Indiana Oaks wins, Baghdaria suggested she was on the verge of cracking the upper level of her division. She galloped at Delta Downs in her first start this year, and even though that was an easy spot, I suspect it might set her up for a big breakthrough.

Lafayette Stakes

This is being written before Friday's opening of the Keeneland spring meet, so I don't know exactly how the Polytrack surface there might play. But I'm thinking that Keeneland's synthetic surface will probably play the way it did when it first opened last fall, which means that it could be a paradise for closers. With that in mind, I'm going with Silver Express.

Silver Express showed promise when he began his career last fall in Kentucky, finishing second in a quality maiden race at Keeneland before getting his first win in a quickly run event at Churchill Downs. For that reason, Silver Express's unsuccessful campaign at Gulfstream was a disappointment, even if he did just miss two starts back. But I think he'll improve with the return to Kentucky. And the fact that he is cutting back to a sprint off three longer races ensures he'll have the closing style I'm looking for.