04/22/2004 11:00PM

Skinny on lightly raced Derby hopefuls

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - One of the interesting facts about this year's Kentucky Derby, as well as one of the significant challenges to handicapping the race, is the likelihood that up to a half-dozen starters in the Derby will have made only two starts this year before the classic.

The number of colts who have had only a pair of starts this year is unusual. But to handicappers and students of the breed, does it tell us something of significance?

It tells us, first of all, that times have changed and keep on changing.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, many classic winners and starters raced little before the classics. Both the inclement winter weather and the relative lack of race meetings minimized racing before April.

These circumstances didn't limit the quality of racing or the racehorses. For instance, Man o' War made his 3-year-old debut in the Preakness of 1920; likewise, Regret ran her first race at 3 in the 1915 Kentucky Derby. Both won.

For Cavalcade, the Derby was his third start in 1934, when he won six of his seven starts. Gallant Fox's Derby was his third start of 1930, but the Preakness was his second, in a day when the sequence of the classics was not firmly fixed on the calendar.

Another Triple Crown winner, Man o' War's great son War Admiral, took the Derby in his third start of the year, and he won all of his eight races in 1937.

On the other hand, some earlier champions raced a good deal before the classics. With winter racing available in Florida, Triple Crown winner Citation made seven starts before the Kentucky Derby in 1948, winning six. Likewise, Triple Crown winner Whirlaway made the same number of starts before winning the Derby in 1941.

Bold Ruler raced five times before the Derby, while Nashua (four), Round Table (seven), Swaps (three), Carry Back (seven), and Damascus (four) all had well-established winter and spring form before starting in the Derby.

With growing opportunities for winter racing, it is not surprising that in the past 50 years only 30 horses have started in the Kentucky Derby with two prep races as 3-year-olds. And it is significant that, although several performed admirably, only one brought home the bouquet of roses: Sunny's Halo (1983). Among the other good efforts were seconds by Best Pal (1991), Victory Gallop (1998), and Bold Arrangement (1986), a third by Summer Tan (1955), and a fourth by Brocco (1994).

As long as a colt is good enough, the number of prep races does not seem to be the key to success or failure.

Point Given, for instance, was fifth in the Derby after only two preps. But he came back to win the Preakness and Belmont convincingly in his next two starts. So was the number of starts significant for Point Given, or was the big chestnut simply a victim of running up on a very fast pace?

Certainly, Point Given and every other horse in the field was up against it when they caught Monarchos at the height of his form in the Derby.

In common with Point Given and several other starters who have come into the Derby with only two starts at 3, there is a pedigree angle that bears consideration: the horses with fewer starts have tended to be by stallions that produce later-maturing horses.

Point Given is by Thunder Gulch, who sires stock that show their best form at distances longer than a mile and typically after their third birthday. Other modern runners who fit this pattern are Victory Gallop (by Cryptoclearance) and Brocco (Kris S.).

Among the colts likely to go in the Derby this year with only two starts, Birdstone (Grindstone), Tapit (Pulpit), Friends Lake (A.P. Indy), and Castledale (Peintre Celebre) fit this pattern.

Read the Footnotes, on the basis of his sire, Smoke Glacken, does not. A champion sprinter at 3, Smoke Glacken was also a Grade 1 winner at 2, and many of his good horses show their ability in their first season.

This is true of Read the Footnotes, who was a very good 2-year-old. And even though Smoke Glacken is siring horses that run farther than expected, Read the Footnotes is the first classic candidate for his sire. Read the Footnotes is out of a mare by Al Nasr, and his second dam is by Vaguely Noble. Both are noted for produce with later maturity. So maybe there is something to this pedigree stuff.