04/28/2005 12:00AM

Taking a swing against Bellamy? Use caution

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Bellamy Road won the Wood by 17 1/2 lengths, but wise guys will still doubt him.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Suppose you opened the Form, turned to a typical race, and started to handicap. One horse stood out: he had won his last two races by a combined margin of over 33 lengths for an elite trainer, and his last-race Beyer Speed Figure gave him at least a 12-point edge over the career-best numbers posted by the opposition.

Such a horse would typically be the choice of everyone, but not if the race in question is the Kentucky Derby.

A week from Saturday, Bellamy Road will start in the Kentucky Derby with those same credentials, but likely without the prohibitive support that typically accompanies horses with such strong recent form.

Barring some major training setback in the coming week, the Nick Zito-trained Bellamy Road will be the favorite - but not to the extent that many imagined after he won the April 9 Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths, earning a 120 Beyer Speed Figure. A sizable number of horseplayers want to beat him.

Perhaps it is the nature of the Kentucky Derby, which tends to inspire people to swing for the fences. Playing the consensus choice simply isn't exciting.

In lieu of conventional handicapping wisdom, many resort to the alternative of basing their choice on trends, pedigrees, and Derby Week training observations - things less important than talent.

I fell into that trap last year, selecting Castledale for one poor reason or another to win the Kentucky Derby. He never got close to victorious Smarty Jones, finishing 14th.

I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard someone tell me they like a Derby horse because they consider him to be the best horse in the race. There is always some angle.

Perhaps that thinking - hopefully by many - will make the odds on Bellamy Road stomachable. Smarty Jones went off at over 4-1 odds carrying an unbeaten record into last year's Derby - largely due to people disliking his pedigree, which was geared more toward speed than distance ability.

In a way, I understand the reluctance of some to like Bellamy Road. In poring over the past performances of the Derby probables, I found myself seriously considering Afleet Alex, Bellamy Road, and High Fly - reasoning that they might get dream trips stalking what should be a fast pace.

Then I watched the replay of the Wood Memorial, not having seen it since the day of the race. My doubts in Bellamy Road ceased. He was awesome.

As good as he has looked this year, he is not without a weakness. In each of his powerhouse races this year, he went for the knockout early by going to the lead. A similar front-running style could lead to trouble in a speed-laden Derby.

I doubt he can win without rating. His opponents will simply take turns ganging up on him early, and the Derby, or any Grade 1 race over a lengthy distance, is difficult to win under that scenario.

I envision him tracking the pace on the outside, letting a couple of the cheap speeds go, before pouncing on the final turn. My feeling is that he has gone to the lead in many of his races because of his high cruising speed, not due to a headstrong nature.

He might be compared to a successful basketball or football team. The best teams typically have little come-from-behind experience because their talent has resulted in them being in front from the start of their games.

As for the possibility of a bounce off the 120 Beyer he earned in the Wood, he might regress 10 Beyer points and still win the Derby with a 110. Better to have run fast than to have never run fast at all.

Vicarage should run big in Derby Trial

Churchill's meet gets started Saturday, with the $100,000 Derby Trial highlighting the 11-race card. Now an ungraded race, the Derby Trial looks like a prime spot for Vicarage, the Louisiana Derby runner-up, to rebound from a poor effort in the Florida Derby.

A late replacement for Bandini in that race when Bandini came up with a bruised foot, Vicarage faltered on three weeks' rest, finishing a distant sixth. With four weeks between starts going into the one-mile Derby trial, Vicarage has been trained more aggressively by Todd Pletcher - much as he did leading up to the Louisiana Derby, when the horse was beaten four lengths by High Limit.

The public sometimes overlooks Pletcher-trained runners when his go-to rider, John Velazquez, is not in the irons - which is the case Saturday with Vicarage. Flower Alley and Coin Silver both paid handsomely for him in winning the Lane's End and Lexington, respectively, with "substitute" riders aboard.

Vicarage's jockey in the Derby Trial, Robby Albarado, has a winning history with Pletcher. He rode Limehouse for Pletcher early in that colt's career.

The graded-stakes-placed Don't Get Mad and the unbeaten Miracle Man are his principal rivals. Each has won over the Churchill Downs main track.