03/30/2006 12:00AM

Step up, roll dice, reach Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When Giacomo crossed the wire first at last year's Kentucky Derby, two things became inevitable: Most bettors would be tearing up their tickets in bewilderment, and it would be a long time before we saw a Kentucky Derby with less than a full field.

With five weeks until Derby Day, as many as 50 horses are still under consideration for the Derby, with new and unlikely candidates emerging every day. A maiden race at Oaklawn on Friday became a Derby-related event when one of the maidens' trainers announced he would point for the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies if his colt won. A so-called Derby prep in New Mexico on Saturday is getting a full hour of coverage on ESPN, or at least is scheduled to - ESPN's last two racing broadcasts have been shaved from 90 to 35 minutes and from 60 to 16 minutes thanks to baseball and tennis overruns.

Horses with thin credentials and experience are being taken very seriously as Derby candidates, and after Giacomo, why not? Giacomo, repeatedly beaten in his preps before the Derby, not to mention all his races since, reinforced the idea that anything can happen on Derby Day. However, in the words of a longtime slogan for the New York State Lottery, you've gotta be in it to win it.

To be in it requires having enough graded-stakes earnings to make the cut for the 20 starting berths, just one of the reasons that the Florida Derby here Saturday is the more important Derby prep than the nationally televised WinStar Derby at Sunland Park. The Florida Derby is not what it used to be, but it's a Grade 1 race with a $1 million purse. Whoever finishes second or third will probably earn enough money in defeat to get into the Kentucky Derby field.

The WinStar offers a fat, racino-fueled $600,000 purse but as yet lacks the longevity to be considered for graded-stakes status, so winning it will do no one's Derby bankroll any good. Not surprisingly, it has attracted a field of moderate horses with no Derby aspirations.

The certainty of oversubscribed Derby fields is changing the meaning of Derby prep races. Once a mechanism for sorting out the most deserving runners and building interest by bringing together the best colts in each region once or twice, they are becoming isolated opportunities to win a ticket to the big dance, a bit like satellite tournaments for a seat in the World Series of Poker.

The Florida Derby, once the premier penultimate prep for the Derby and a stepping-stone to the Blue Grass or Wood Memorial, has been repositioned on the calendar in an unfortunate later slot that now precludes an intervening start before the main event. That timing, however, does appeal to some trainers, such as Michael Matz, who will send out Barbaro, the 8-5 morning-line favorite.

Barbaro's performance will be the center of Derby-related attention Saturday. We know that the undefeated colt is a terror on grass, and classy enough to have gutted out a slow win on a sloppy track in his dirt debut. Whether he is special or ordinary on a fast dirt track is what this Florida Derby is all about - as well as qualifying two or three other horses for Derby berths from this second-richest of the prep races for 3-year-olds.

The richest is the $2 million UAE Derby, from which, fortunately, only the brilliant and victorious Discreet Cat is being considered for Kentucky. One of these years, there's going to be an understandable outcry when some horse earns $240,000 for finishing third by 20 lengths in that race 6,000 miles away and his connections decide to accept the free berth in Kentucky they've just won.

It's a new world of qualifying for the Derby, as the connections of Strong Contender are painfully learning. Ranked on many Derby top 10 lists despite never having run in a stakes, Strong Contender got shut out of the Lane's End Stakes a week ago when 12 horses with higher earnings were entered while he was in the middle of a long van ride. Now in addition to earning enough to qualify for the Derby, you have to earn enough to qualify for a prep. He'll now get one shot to make the Derby field when he runs in the Blue Grass on April 15 - assuming he gets into that race - and he'll have to win or run second to have a chance of going on to Churchill Downs.

If your own horse gets shut out of the Derby, you still could buy into someone else's. Equirace.com, which owns 48-1 Lane's End winner With a City, said on its website Thursday that two 25 percent shares in the City Zip colt are for sale.

"Call for details," advises the site. "Added bonus: This partnership comes with 4 box seats to the Kentucky Derby!"