04/19/2005 11:00PM

Speed in this Derby says bet closer

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PHILADELPHIA - If this can hold together for another two weeks, the Kentucky Derby will have more possibilities than any Derby in memory. I have it down to three, but one could still make a reasonable case for a half-dozen more horses.

The shape of the race might be the determining factor. In 2001, a suicide pace set it up for Monarchos and, with the jockeys mindful of what went down the year before, they all watched War Emblem walk to the front and wire the field in 2002.

There will be no free lunch this time. I have seen Derbies with as much early speed as this one. I have never seen a Derby with as much quality speed.

High Fly, High Limit, Bellamy Road, and Rockport Harbor (if he makes it) all run on or near the lead. Sun King and Consolidator certainly have more than enough speed to contest the pace as well.

Get that many good horses with the same style and it may be time to send out a meltdown alert. It is really hard to envision a War Emblem scenario. This pace should be more than honest.

And if it is, the chances of Afleet Alex, Bandini, and Noble Causeway would have to be even better than their already solid past performances suggest.

Is it possible High Fly is this year's Smarty Jones, a colt that can stalk any pace and just go? Sure. And, with High Fly being ridden by Jerry Bailey, the master of finding the right trip, you have to figure High Fly will have every chance. But can he hang with these kinds of horses and still finish? Interesting question.

Bellamy Road with his 120 Beyer Speed Figure is fascinating on so many levels. Where exactly did that figure come from? It really defied logic. Horses, even improving 3-year-olds, just don't improve 24 Beyer points in a few weeks. But Bellamy Road did, and we have to assess it.

Rockport Harbor has great talent, but continues to fight the clock. The colt will have to win Saturday's Lexington Stakes to go on, and he also will have to do it impressively. Otherwise, trainer John Servis said he would pass on the Derby and start looking at the Preakness.

If I had to make a pick today, I would probably try to beat all the speed horses and look to the off-the-pace group, which includes Afleet Alex, Bandini, and Noble Causeway.

If you put a line through Afleet Alex's Rebel Stakes (when he had a lung infection), the colt has one of the great resumes in recent Derby history. He has won three graded stakes and just missed winning two others. He has run well under all sorts of circumstances. In the Arkansas Derby, he demolished the field while earning a 108 Beyer, the kind of Beyer that wins the Derby every year. And his style might prove highly effective in this Derby.

Bandini and Noble Causeway share the rare Beyer pattern of ascending figures in each of their races. Bandini (46-86-90-98-103) topped off his rising numbers with an overwhelming win in the Blue Grass against the best field of 3-year-olds assembled all year. Noble Causeway (59-72-77-85-96-100) needed four races to win his maiden and has not yet won a stakes. But his second in the Florida Derby indicates he can be a factor in Kentucky.

Everybody seems to think the West Coast 3-year-olds are a weak bunch. When everybody agrees, it pays to be contrarian. However, the Beyer evidence is overwhelming that the Santa Anita Derby was not even close to what we have come to expect from California's premier Kentucky Derby prep race. I don't like agreeing with everybody, but I am with them this time.

Six of the last eight Derby winners have also won the Preakness. Looking ahead in this game always gets me in trouble, but given the quality depth in this group getting the Derby winner to the Belmont Stakes with a chance at the Triple Crown might not be as easy as Funny Cide and Smarty Jones made it seem the last two years.

Still, every race has its unique characteristics. How a race is going to be run sometimes matters just as much as the horses in the race. With all of those speeds in this Derby, it surely appears to be a race that sets up for an off-the-pace runner. The Preakness, with a smaller field and probably less speed, might set up much differently. But that discussion is for May 21. This is all about May 7.

Today, I like some combination of Afleet Alex, Bandini, and Noble Causeway. In two weeks, after listening to all the pre-Derby chatter and probably getting hopelessly confused, I may come with a different theory. In this game, you better reserve the right to change your mind. The one thing that never changes is that nothing ever stays the same for long.