04/23/2002 11:00PM

Solving puzzle of Derby favorites

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PHILADELPHIA - In normal circumstances, this Kentucky Derby would not be nearly so confusing. Everybody would be talking about two horses - Came Home and Harlan's Holiday.

Came Home won his three California preps by a combined margin of 9 1/4 lengths. Harlan's Holiday won the Florida Derby and Blue Grass. Thus, one of them should win the Derby. That's the logical way to approach this race.

Yet, nobody seems to want to go there. And everybody knows why.

Harlan's Holiday keeps winning by more lengths and running slower. Came Home runs slower every time he races an additional furlong.

On their race records, these two colts stand over the field. But I don't want to focus on the obvious. I want to interpret it.

And, it really could be this easy. The Derby does sometimes make sense. Silver Charm made sense. Fusaichi Pegasus made sense. Logical horses do win this race.

Still, there is that lingering feeling that something is not quite right with Harlan's Holiday and Came Home despite their imposing records and obvious consistency.

Let's examine the evidence.

Harlan's Holiday raced six times last year with four wins and two seconds. His Beyer improved in every race. He has raced four times this year with two wins and two seconds. His Beyer improved for an incredible eighth consecutive race when he finished second in the Fountain of Youth and earned a 103. Since then, he has gotten a 101 in the Florida Derby and a 98 in the Blue Grass.

Frankly, I am not sure how to interpret those last two Beyers. Harlan's Holiday had a perfect setup in both races - and won just like he should have. Still, this was a colt that fired hard with no setup at all. I can't think of any logical reason why Harlan's Holiday won't run well in the Derby.

Many will tell you he has peaked and is now going the wrong way. When was the last time you heard anybody saying that about the winner of the Florida Derby and Blue Grass?

I love the figures. I believe in the figures. Still, I am not quite sure what they mean here.

Came Home has raced seven times. In four of those starts, he has earned a Beyer of 105 or more. Reread the previous sentence: It is very important.

Came Home clearly is fast enough to win the Derby. He was talented enough to earn a 105 and 108 as a 2-year-old.

He got a 111 in his first start as a 3-year-old. That, of course, was at seven furlongs. Then, he got a 106 at a mile, followed by a 96 at nine furlongs.

Therefore, the knock. The numbers seem to indicate the farther he goes, the slower he runs. But can we be sure?

Remember that Came Home missed valuable training time before the Santa Anita Derby. Perhaps, he wasn't at his best that day. And, if you remember, Came Home looked like he was in trouble turning for home. Then, despite being between horses, he ran away and won pretty easily. Visually, I thought it was the most impressive of the Derby preps.

One could make a good case for about 10 horses. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro are certainly fast enough to win. Private Emblem was very good in Arkansas. Saarland appears to have the perfect Derby breeding. Essence of Dubai, Johannesburg, and Castle Gandolfo come from overseas with intriguing credentials and no little bit of mystery.

The race is a week away. Before I've set foot at Churchill Downs - where we will all hear how every horse in the race could not possibly be doing any better - absolute pronouncements are impossible.

My advice would be not to dismiss anything, especially the two horses with the most impressive credentials in the field.