04/20/2003 11:00PM

Is Scrimshaw poised to make Derby impact?

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NEW YORK - I don't know that it made Empire Maker quake in his boots, but the victory by Scrimshaw in Saturday's Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland was an interesting development if for no other reason than Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas trains him.

The Lexington, positioned two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, has carved out a nice little niche for itself as an important Derby prep that counters the modern convention that calls for Derby horses to compete in Louisville off three or four weeks of rest. Stephan's Odyssey won the Lexington in 1985, and finished second in the Derby. Risen Star won it in 1988, and we all know he should have won that year's Derby. Hansel won it in 1991, and followed with a dull effort in the Derby that became more uncharacteristic in hindsight when he subsequently won the Preakness and Belmont.

It was Lukas, however, who demonstrated the full value of the Lexington as a prep for the Derby. In 1999, he won it with the unheralded Charismatic. Charismatic, of course, came back to win the Derby and Preakness, and suffered a career-ending breakdown in the Belmont that probably cost him the Triple Crown. Last year, Lukas won the Lexington with Proud Citizen, who came back to be a game second in the Derby and a gutsy third in the Preakness.

Scrimshaw may well have been a better horse going into the Lexington than Charismatic and Proud Citizen were going into their Lexingtons. Charismatic had to drop in with maiden claimers to get his first career win, needed the help of the stewards to win a later claiming race, and was 44-1 when a distant fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. Proud Citizen was up the track in all three of his stakes attempts before his sudden turnaround in the Lexington. Scrimshaw, meanwhile, won his first two starts, managed to break the triple digit Beyer Speed Figure barrier as early as December of his 2-year-old year, and was the 9-5 favorite when third in the Santa Catalina in his first career defeat.

The jury is still out as to whether Scrimshaw is a true distance performer, and it is anyone's guess whether he will move forward the way Charismatic, and to a lesser extent, Proud Citizen did. But even if Scrimshaw is better than those colts were at this point in time, even if he can improve, and even if he can find 1 1/4 miles within his range, he will have to contend with something that Charismatic and Proud Citizen did not: a favorite for the Derby as imposing as Empire Maker.

Not the same filly we saw at 2

It wasn't so much that Storm Flag Flying lost for the first time in her career in her comeback in Friday's Comely Stakes at Aqueduct. The shock was how last year's champion 2-year-old filly lost.

Storm Flag Flying was making her first start since she clinched her divisional title with her courageous, come-again win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies almost six months ago, and after a winter in Florida, where her training was so deliberate you had to wonder about her condition. She was also coming back in a Grade 3 race that was clearly intended to set her up for much bigger events down the road. So, even though she was 1-5 on the board, it wasn't impossible to envision someone else in the Comely field jumping up, running the race of her life, and upsetting the champ.

It was next to impossible, however, to envision Storm Flag Flying getting absolutely crushed, but that is just what Cyber Secret did to her. Storm Flag Flying was profoundly one-paced throughout, and for quite a while it looked like she might even lose second to Bonay, a filly who had just improved her record to 2 for 9 with a win in an entry-level allowance race.

After this, you have to wonder how well Storm Flag Flying made the critical transition from 2 to 3. Just because horses are clearly superior to their contemporaries one year, as Storm Flag Flying was last year, it doesn't mean they will be superior again the next year, because horses develop at individual paces, and many events, including injury, can mitigate development.

Storm Flag Flying is actually going against the odds in attempting to maintain superiority in her division. In the 27 years champions have been elected after the great Ruffian followed her 2-year-old filly championship in 1974 with another divisional title in 1975, only three other fillies were champions at both 2 and 3, Open Mind (1988 and 1989), Go for Wand (1989 and 1990), and Silverbulletday (1998 and 1999). In other words, 24 2-year-old filly champions did not repeat.

At least the fillies have a better success rate in this area than males. The same male has not been a champion at both 2 and 3 since Spectacular Bid in 1978 and 1979.