04/26/2002 12:00AM

Take a shot on stretch-out sprinter


PHOENIX - There's $250,000 at the end of the journey, so while Sunday's Snow Chief at Hollywood Park isn't the Kentucky Derby, it still isn't to be taken lightly.

And like next Saturday's handicapping maze of 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs, this race is about as easy to decipher as a Dennis Miller analogy. Because of the general confusion surrounding Sunday's race, however, you're going to get a very square price on almost any horse.

A tale of the tape, at least for the main contenders:

Gobi Dan: The likely favorite, and deservedly so. He comes off a win over a number of these in a Cal-bred N1X race at Santa Anita at 1 1/16 miles. He won his only start over this track, over Lusty Latin, who goes next in the Kentucky Derby after running third in the Santa Anita Derby. Extremely reliable, he has been in the tri in five straight races.

Good Terms: The 68 Beyer he earned in his maiden win wasn't at all impressive. He came back, however, against older horses and despite a lousy start from the rail nearly beat the hard-hitting Peak at You with another consistent older horse, Alfurune, a half-length back in third. Good Terms has shown tactical speed and the ability to pass horses. He has worked strongly and acts very much as though this new distance is within his reach.

Menacing Dennis: Showed major speed winning his 2-year-old debut last July at Monmouth by 10-plus, earning a 91 Beyer. Wasn't seen again until March 6, but he won smartly again, this time earning a 94 Beyer. He found Officer far too much to handle in the Zany Tactics but doesn't face that kind of opposition here. The bigger issue is the distance - he acts like a dyed-in-the-wool sprinter and while he has the speed to lead here early, there's other zip in here, so the hurdles are significant.

Highly Suspect: Finished behind Snow Chief foes Gobi Dan, Calkins Road, and Roberto's Show when last seen, but he was farther back than they were, and the pace was tepid at best (48.20 seconds, 1:13.40). In other words, he had little chance to make headway off those splits after sitting back last. His maiden win came with pace-pressing tactics so he doesn't have to come from the clouds. It's encouraging Chris McCarron sees fit to ride and the last two works (1:12.60, bullet 46.40) give every indication he's coming up to this the right way.

Calkins Road: Seems to handle everything with thorough professionalism. Last time, he pressed slow splits and after Roberto's Show blew by in midstretch he rerallied. But he didn't have enough to fend off a more seasoned Gobi Dan in the final strides. He figures even fitter today and that versatility, speed, and heart figures to serve him well.

There are others in the field of 12 who can certainly win this. Even a couple maidens have a shot. Gobi Dan and Calkins Road, on the basis of their strong recent showing and overall form, should be the two favorites. It's very easy to envision either one winning, but do you want 2-1 or 5-2 in a race where the distance from first to 12th may only be a couple lengths?

That's why the lean here is to the horse who may be ready for the most significant forward move. Good Terms has shown the requisite heart and tactical speed. Sure, he has only shown it sprinting, but there's no reason being by Half Term out of a Screen King mare he shouldn't handle this trip. And he was closing strongly last time to just miss against a tough older allowance horse.

Since that March 16 race Good Terms has worked five times, including five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Tuesday for trainer Clifford Sise.

Keying a Godolphin horse in Derby

It's less than a week away, and as things stand now I remain as confused as ever about this year's Kentucky Derby. By now I have almost always latched on to a horse, particularly one who visually impressed me in one of the preps. That didn't really happen this year.

So considering that the American contingent doesn't appear as formidable as in past years, I'm beginning to believe this is the year of Godolphin. Essence of Dubai showed significant ability as a 2-year-old in America. Some critics say he lacks quality, but much of that negative press has been because he ran such a dud in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Otherwise, his 2-year-old form was excellent.

Best of all, he figures to be battle-tested after two tough Dubai preps, one in which he traversed 1 1/4 miles. With many of the American prospects we're left wondering if they can get the trip. That's no issue here.

So Essence of Dubai is my pick. One play I will make is a $1 tri key of Essence of Dubai over Harlan's Holiday, Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, Saarland, Easy Grades, Johannesburg, Lusty Latin, and Perfect Drift (the only horse who visually impressed me).

I will also play a $1 tri of Harlan's Holiday, Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, Saarland, Easy Grades, Johannesburg, and Perfect Drift with Essence of Dubai with the first seven horses plus Lusty Latin. That's just over $100 of trifecta action, which hopefully will be like the proverbial penny thrown out there that comes back dressed up as a dime.