03/27/2002 1:00AM

So many questions, so few answers


PHILADELPHIA - Remember when the Triple Crown preps were like the NCAA Tournament? Run a race, eliminate some horses. Run many races, eliminate many horses.

After so many races are run, there should be just a few horses left with a chance to win the Kentucky Derby. It usually works just that way. It's not working so well this year.

The NCAA, of course, is more definitive. Lose and you are out. There are no second chances. Ask Duke.

By late March each year, the Derby really is not that complicated. There are usually four or five horses who can win it. Everybody knows the horses. Then, it just comes down to picking the right one.

How come my list keeps getting longer? How come I find myself looking for the exception to the usual rules? How come I am searching for Charismatic?

Yes, this could be as easy as looking Ken McPeek's way and picking one of his two distinguished horses - Repent or Harlan's Holiday. They have been in all the right races. They fire every time. Top jockeys ride them.

Still, you wonder. Repent was all out to win the Louisiana Derby in slow time. Harlan's Holiday got a perfect setup in the Florida Derby and did not run a best Beyer.

Could Saarland or Blue Burner be this year's Real Quiet? You know the type. Pass some horses, but don't catch anybody's eye. Get to Kentucky and have a few great weeks. Get a hot pace and inhale the collapsing leaders.

What of Came Home? He's the fastest and the most consistent. But he has missed training time. And there is that pedigree.

Easyfromthegitgo lost to Repent by a nose in the Louisiana Derby. Yet, he was 33-1 in the last future wager while Repent was 9-1.

Johannesburg? Who could possibly have a positive opinion on something you know nothing about? Who can eliminate a horse who has never lost a race?

I caught Essence of Dubai's race last Saturday morning in Lexington while waiting for Indiana to play Kent State. Looked pretty good, but how can you interpret a 1 1/4-mile race in the desert against unknown competition?

Three horses (Perfect Drift, Azillion and Request for Parole) were together at the finish of the Spiral. Does that mean all three are good or does it mean all three are not good enough?

Is there a chance that it could be a very lightly raced talent like Medaglia d'Oro, Mayakovsky, Sunday Break, or Buddha?

Is it possible that the winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (Equality) is really a Derby contender?

Nobody seems to like Booklet, but what if he gets loose on the lead in the Derby because all the riders remember last year's insane pace and refuse to get caught up in it again?

Where have you gone Fusaichi Pegasus and Point Given? We need some clarity here.

With one final round of prep races, this may yet make shake out in rational fashion. But I am really starting to wonder. By this time, I can usually say something interesting to all those irritants who ask me every five minutes who I like in the Derby.

Now, I am thinking it would be nice if I have an opinion by the time the horses are in the starting gate on May 4.