04/22/2005 12:00AM

Step aside if you're only here for the ride

Greeley's Galaxy earned a 106 Beyer for his win in the Illinois Derby.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The last round of major prep races for the Kentucky Derby can tell trainers and owners a lot about whether their horse belongs in the race. So why are most of them turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the outcome of those races when their horses run poorly, or show signs that they are unlikely to handle the 1 1/4-mile distance?

The Wood, Arkansas Derby, Illinois Derby, and Blue Grass gave us four dominant winners. If ever there was a year that deserved a Kentucky Derby field of 10 or less, this is it. The horses who finished behind those four easy winners were absolutely no threat to win, and most of them were losing ground steadily through the stretch until they were rescued by the finish line. After seeing them surrender in the last furlong going 1 1/8 miles, is there any reason to believe they will be more effective going 1 1/4 miles?

This is the time of year when owners and trainers like to talk about their horse needing to "punch his ticket" to the Kentucky Derby by running well in one of those final preps. Bellamy Road punched his ticket when he punched the stuffing out of a badly overmatched field in his 17 1/2-length triumph in the Wood, earning a 120 Beyer.

Common sense might suggest that Survivalist, the distant second-place finisher in that race, would want to spend the rest of his career staying as far away from that monster as possible. But as of Friday morning, his connections are still toying with the idea of battling him again in the Kentucky Derby. Please understand that Bellamy Road would not be the only obstacle in Survivalist's way. All of the other dominant Derby prep winners were likely to put up much more of a fight than Survivalist did, and probably would have fit in comfortably ahead of Survivalist in that 17 1/2-length gap if they had all met in the Wood.

Afleet Alex punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby after his eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, which earned him a 108 Beyer. He looks like the real deal.

But what about Wild Desert? He finished 15 3/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex in that race and has defeated winners just once in 10 attempts. Clearly, he would face an uphill struggle in the Kentucky Derby.

Bandini has improved his Beyer in all four of his starts since his debut. He punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby with a powerful bid from third that carried him to a six-length score in the Blue Grass. Given the likelihood that he will continue to improve with experience, you might think that all who finished in his wake in that race would be looking for softer spots, rather than a rematch. Factor in the presence of Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex, and possibly Greeley's Galaxy in the Derby, and the losers of the Blue Grass would appear to be up against it in Louisville. Curiously, five of the six horses who were pummeled by Bandini can't wait to run back in the Derby.

The worst part of this is that if a full field, including a number of horses who don't really belong in the race, fills the gate on Derby Day, the talented Greeley's Galaxy will be excluded from running because of a quirk in the rules. He would be left out despite having earnings high enough to make him a starter and despite the fact that the $200,000 cost of his late nomination is higher than the total nomination fees paid by all of the other horses in the field combined.

Greeley's Galaxy's impressive win in the Illinois Derby, in which he earned a 106 Beyer, makes him a legitimate threat, especially since he is a lightly raced contender who is just now blossoming. It would be a shame if he was blocked from competing, and perhaps winning, because a number of owners and trainers of horses who are very unlikely to make any impact in the Kentucky Derby choose to run their horses there just because they can.