04/24/2008 12:00AM

Taking closer look at Derby favorites' last races

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Barring a last-minute stroke of creative inspiration, many logical handicappers will make the same predictable Kentucky Derby selections as everyone else - Big Brown and Colonel John one-two.

Because with the possible exception of rapidly improving Arkansas Derby winner Gayego, who else is there to like? The list of genuine contenders is short.

Yet doubts linger about both Big Brown and Colonel John. Big Brown is a potential freak with the fastest speed figures and an abbreviated resume that includes three blowout wins. While his three-start career may not have provided sufficient seasoning for the rough-and-tumble Kentucky Derby, another nagging suspicion is that Big Brown was flattered by circumstances in the Florida Derby. His win might not be good as it looks.

It is the same with Colonel John. While his fast-closing victory in the Santa Anita Derby left a positive impression, perhaps the win was overrated. It is possible that Colonel John has been given way too much credit for a performance he produced under advantageous conditions.

This is not to suggest that either Big Brown or Colonel John is a one-hit wonder. They are not. Big Brown was a fast horse going into the Florida Derby, and even faster coming out. Colonel John was a seasoned, top-class colt going into the Santa Anita Derby, and still more so coming out.

But the closer one examines their last starts, the less appealing they become. Maybe both colts are overrated.

The March 29 card at Gulfstream Park included the Florida Derby sandwiched between the day's two other two-turn dirt stakes - the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss for 3-year-old fillies, and the Forever Whirl for older Florida-breds. The fact Shes All Eltish won the Bonnie Miss as the third choice was no surprise. What was unexpected is she was the only horses that showed up to run.

Shes All Eltish won by 6 3/4 lengths while earning her average 90 Beyer Speed Figure; every other starter in the field regressed from 8 to 46 points on the Beyer scale. Shes All Eltish was the only filly that ran a step; she clearly loved the Gulfstream main track that day.

Later on the card, even-money Electrify delivered the best performance of his 22-start career, winning the Forever Whirl by 8 3/4 lengths - the largest win margin of his career - while earning a career-high 109 Beyer. Electrify clearly loved the Gulfstream main track on March 29.

Big Brown, in comparison to the win margins of Shes All Eltish and Electrify, merely upheld the March 29 theme by crushing the Florida Derby. His margin was five lengths; it was 7 1/2 lengths back to third.

So was the main track March 29 at Gulfstream typical? It seems not. On a "normal" surface, it is unlikely that all three dirt routes would be won with such complete authority. Big Brown was flattered by the prevailing conditions when he did the same thing as Shes All Eltish and Electrify - win in a romp.

As for Colonel John, his half-length win margin in the Santa Anita was more typical for an evenly contested race. And he deserves credit for extracting himself from heavy traffic on the far turn, and powering home in the 1 1/8-mile race as if he wants every bit of 1 1/4 miles.

There was nothing conventional, however, about the bizarre main track at Santa Anita the final two months of the winter meet. Many races were influenced by an extreme bias, including the Santa Anita Derby. Week after week, race after race on the synthetic surface, the winner was the last horse to rally on the far outside.

Meanwhile, horses that cut the corner into the lane repeatedly lost their punch, as if they were running in quicksand. But the outside lanes, particularly from the top of the stretch to the finish, were virtually downhill. That is where Colonel John unleashed his powerful Santa Anita Derby stretch run - in the final furlong, widest out, in the best part of the track.

The accolades showered on Colonel John after his Santa Anita win are mostly justified. He was buried in traffic on the far turn, stalled behind runners with nowhere to go. But he found a seam, unleashed a turn of speed to establish position into the stretch, and was good enough to get where he needed to be - the far outside.

But in the last furlong of the Santa Anita Derby, Colonel John benefitted from a severe bias that propelled horses racing in the middle of the track. Even the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, Bob Black Jack, was allowed to drift wide into the lane because his rider recognized the nature of the surface.

While there is no doubt Colonel John was flattered by the bias when he ran himself into co-favoritism for the Kentucky Derby, scrutiny of his Santa Anita rally does not diminish his previous accomplishments.

But the Kentucky Derby might be a trap. Colonel John won the Santa Anita Derby in deep stretch, under favorable circumstances. It was the same with Big Brown. The wickedly fast colt won the Florida Derby under favorable conditions, racing on a dirt surface where runaway victories were standard fare.

Many logical handicappers will prefer Big Brown and Colonel John next Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, based on seemingly impressive wins in their final prep races.

But those same two races, the Santa Anita and Florida derbies, may or may not be as good as they appear.

If it turns out that both races are overrated, then the 2008 Run for the Roses will be won by either Gayego, or a crazy longshot that few rational handicappers will be able to find beforehand.