05/05/2005 12:00AM

So, what does he do for an encore?


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Will he or won't he? That is the question surrounding Bellamy Road, the solid favorite in the 131st on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Will he run back to his crushing victory four weeks ago in the Wood Memorial, which he won by 17 1/2 lengths while earning a stratospheric Beyer Speed Figure of 120?

"If that's the performance he brings to the Derby, we all might be running for second," said jockey Jerry Bailey, who rides High Fly.

Or won't he, because the performance was a one-time, Beamonesque fluke, or because he will regress and come back to Earth?

"The three favorites," trainer Bobby Frankel said, referring to Bellamy Road, Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex, and Blue Grass Stakes winner Bandini, "might bounce."

Nick Zito, who trains Bellamy Road and four others in this year's Derby, is hoping Bellamy Road bounces right into the winner's circle. Zito, who has won the Derby twice, holds a strong hand. In addition to Bellamy Road, he sends out High Fly and Noble Causeway, the one-two finishers in the Florida Derby, along with Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King and the longshot Andromeda's Hero.

"If we don't get number three now," Zito said, "then I will have to have Secretariat himself."

It is Secretariat to whom Bellamy Road's Wood Memorial has been compared. It was a singularly spectacular performance, breathtaking in its dominance. For Bellamy Road to prevail in the Derby, though, he will have to prove he can handle additional pace pressure from the likes of Going Wild and Spanish Chestnut, or at least rate behind anyone hell-bent on making the lead.

"I think he'll rate," Zito said. "In his works, he sure looks like it. We've been trying to get him to relax and finish."

Bellamy Road also is giving up experience, both in terms of his career - he has had only five starts - and in terms of his preps. He has raced just twice this year, and in the past 57 years, only once - Sunny's Halo in 1983 - has a horse won the Derby in his third start of the year.

Nineteen others were entered to face Bellamy Road. They include Afleet Alex, who comes off a runaway victory in the Arkansas Derby, and Bandini, the rambunctious colt who cruised in the Blue Grass. Todd Pletcher, who trains Bandini, joins Zito in having multiple entries in this year's race. He also has Coin Silver, the Lexington Stakes winner, and Flower Alley, who won the Lane's End and is adding blinkers for the Derby.

This Derby will be run at a Churchill Downs facility that has melded the old with the new over the past three years during a $121 million construction project. A crowd of 140,000 - including celebrities like basketball great Michael Jordan - is expected to attend the Derby. Millions more will watch on NBC during a 90-minute telecast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Derby is 6:04. The Derby is the 10th race on a 12-race card that begins at 11 a.m. The National Weather Service is forecasting a high of 81 degrees, with a slight chance of a thunderstorm.

The Derby's purse was doubled this year to $2 million, and was further enhanced by the $200,000 that owner B. Wayne Hughes paid to supplement Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy to the race. The supplement makes Greeley's Galaxy eligible for all three Triple Crown races. The overall Derby purse is $2,399,600, with $1,639,600 going to the winner.

But the Derby is such a part of Americana that the money is secondary to the glory and prestige of winning the race. It is the one race even non-racing fans know.

"Whenever someone finds out I'm a jockey, the first thing they ask me is, 'Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?' " Bailey said.

He has. Twice. But trainer Tim Ritchey and jockey Jeremy Rose, who are with Afleet Alex, and Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who are with Bandini, are among those seeking that elusive prize.

Most handicappers believe the pace will be contested. Zito was gratified Bellamy Road drew an outside post.

"He's a big, huge horse," Zito said. "A big cat. Outside, he can get a clear run."

Afleet Alex will try to utilize the same tactics that brought him victory in Arkansas.

"My horse will run a stalking-style race," Ritchey said. "There's a lot of very legitimate speed. I think we'll be sitting about eight to 10 lengths back the first part of the race. Hopefully he can save some ground, steadily move up, and if he shows the same kick he had in the Arkansas Derby, I think we'll have a pretty good chance."

Afleet Alex also is battle-tested, having raced six times at 2 and three times this year.

Bandini "is getting physically stronger and more mature mentally all the time," Pletcher said. That said, Bandini is prone to some of the aggressive, quirky behavior for which his sire, 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, was known. Both he and Andromeda's Hero, another son of Fusaichi Pegasus, should be observed in the paddock and post parade to see if they are maintaining their composure.

Another to watch before the race is Greater Good, who got extremely sweaty in the paddock before the Arkansas Derby and ran poorly. He was sweaty during a schooling session at Churchill Downs earlier this week.

High Limit, by contrast, has displayed poise that masks his inexperience. The Louisiana Derby winner has raced just four times, only twice this year. He most recently was second in the Blue Grass to Bandini, but Frankel, his trainer, believes he is coming up to a peak performance.

"I think you're better off doing it in the Derby than in the prep," he said. Frankel said High Limit will not be on the lead. "I want the rider," he said, referring to Ramon Dominguez, "to let the horse find his comfort level early, wherever that's at."

Zito concedes Bandini was much the best in the Blue Grass.

"Nobody was going to beat Bandini that day. He was terrific," Zito said.

But Zito believes Sun King was compromised by a poor trip and is capable of rebounding.

"He can run better. Things just didn't go right," Zito said.

Both High Fly and Noble Causeway have not raced in five weeks. The last time a horse won the Derby without a prep four weeks or less before the Derby was Needles in 1956. High Fly has won 5 times in 6 starts. Noble Causeway steadily improved this spring and "we know he can go a mile and a quarter," Zito said, referring to the Derby's distance.

"If High Fly or Noble Causeway don't win, it is not because of the five weeks," Zito said. "They both ran three mile-and-an-eighth races, which is very, very tough."

It has been even longer since a horse did not race at 2, yet won the Derby. Apollo did it in 1882. That is the streak Greeley's Galaxy will try to end. If he wins, his 83-year-old trainer, Warren Stute, will become the oldest trainer to win the Derby.

Wilko is trying to become the first winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to return and take the Derby the following spring.

Don't Get Mad is trying to return on one week's rest and win the Derby after capturing the Derby Trial, a feat not accomplished since Tim Tam in 1958.

The field

Kentucky Derby
Purse: $2,000,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1Sort It OutB. Blanc50-1
2Andromeda's HeroR. Bejarano50-1
3Sun KingE. Prado15-1
4Noble CausewayG. Stevens12-1
5Coin SilverP. Valenzuela30-1
6High LimitR. Dominguez12-1
7Flower AlleyJ. Chavez30-1
8Greater GoodJ. McKee30-1
9Greeley's GalaxyK. Desormeaux12-1
10GiacomoM. Smith30-1
11High FlyJ. Bailey10-1
12Afleet AlexJ. Rose6-1
13Spanish ChestnutJ. Bravo50-1
14WilkoC. Nakatani20-1
15BandiniJ. Velazquez8-1
16Bellamy RoadJ. Castellano5-2
17Don't Get MadT. Baze30-1
18Closing ArgumentC. Velasquez50-1
19Going WildJ. Valdivia50-1
20Buzzards BayM. Guidry30-1

* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Odds by Mike Watchmaker
* Television: Saturday 5-6:30 p.m. (Eastern), NBC