04/08/2007 11:00PM

Three uninspiring Derby preps

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NEW YORK - For a Saturday that dawned with such great promise of sensational stakes racing, it seemed that by nightfall all the high expectations went largely unfulfilled. And those who concur would probably also agree that this was directly attributable to each of the day's three big final Kentucky Derby preps - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Illinois Derby - falling flat.

Sure, by winning the Wood Memorial, Nobiz Like Shobiz did little to cause serious damage to his reputation as a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. But at the same time, Nobiz Like Shobiz's hard-fought victory was not the kind of performance many, including a lot of his most ardent admirers, were seeking. With the Wood being his first start with blinkers, and third start back off a layoff, it was reasonable to expect Nobiz Like Shobiz to complete his Derby preparations with a flourish. What we got was a rather pedestrian performance that raised as many questions as it may have resolved.

The good news is that with blinkers on, Nobiz Like Shobiz did run straight in the stretch, which was an issue in his surprising loss in last month's Fountain of Youth, and even in his prior victories in the Holy Bull and Remsen. The not-so-good news is that the addition of blinkers did not elicit the kind of performance breakthrough people wanted to see. After Any Given Saturday threw in the towel in the final furlong, the situation was ripe for Nobiz Like Shobiz to engineer such a performance breakthrough. Instead, he struggled through a final furlong in a slow 13.44 seconds, and was hard pressed to deny the previously unheralded Sightseeing.

That Nobiz Like Shobiz had to work so hard to deny Sightseeing - who is a well-bred colt in the expert hands of trainer Shug McGaughey, but who more importantly was still eligible to an entry-level allowance race after seven career starts going into the Wood - lends considerable credence to the notion that Nobiz Like Shobiz has not developed much from 2 to 3. So, too, does the fact that after earning a Beyer Speed Figure of only 98 for winning the Wood, Nobiz Like Shobiz still has yet to crack the triple-digit Beyer barrier. The irony here is, regardless of what happens this Saturday in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, Nobiz Like Shobiz figures to be no worse than second or third choice in the betting in the Kentucky Derby, even though he has yet to demonstrate he is fast enough to actually win it.

Then there is Any Given Saturday, who was thought to be the other component in what was considered beforehand a two-horse Wood Memorial. Unless he has some sort of unpublicized allergy to the rail, it was ridiculous for him to be caught four wide on the first turn and three wide on the far turn, just as he was in his gallant, narrow loss in the Tampa Bay Derby to Street Sense. Even after that kind of costly ground loss, however, it was alarming to see Any Given Saturday fold late the way he did. That strongly confirms the impression that the Tampa Bay Derby was an especially draining race, and makes one wonder even more what impact that race will have on Street Sense's performance in the Blue Grass.

In Southern California, the Santa Anita Derby fell apart late just as it figured to on paper, with a final furlong completed in 13.49. But it wasn't Sam P. who capitalized, as many anticipated. Instead of rating and closing as he had in all of his best prior efforts, Sam P. somehow got cooked in a pace battle with Black Seventeen and faded to third. The improbable opportunist this time was Tiago, who, despite performing dismally in the Robert Lewis in his only previous stakes attempt, got up to nail King of the Roxy.

Tiago, who earned a100 Beyer Speed Figure, is scheduled to go on to the Kentucky Derby, as any Santa Anita Derby winner should, even a winner of a less-than-vintage edition like this one. But it appears that King of the Roxy will not go on to Churchill. After the Santa Anita Derby, Team Valor issued an amusing press release stating that King of the Roxy was never intended for the Kentucky Derby, even though in the weeks leading up to the Santa Anita Derby, Team Valor declined to categorically rule out King of the Roxy as a Derby prospect. With the way King of the Roxy shortened stride late Saturday and was beaten by a colt in Tiago who had never actually finished first in a race before, ruling King of the Roxy out of the Derby isn't the sacrifice it might appear, as he is clearly not Derby material.

Although he probably deserves a berth in the Kentucky Derby, it's hard to classify Cowtown Cat as a prominent Derby contender, despite his clear-cut score in the Illinois Derby. Cowtown Cat's previous victory in the Gotham was over a weak field, and was slow, resulting in a Beyer of only 88. His win Saturday at Hawthorne was faster; he earned a Beyer of 98, the same as Nobiz Like Shobiz. But, all Cowtown Cat really proved in the Illinois Derby is that he can handle modest opposition and run slightly faster when allowed to set a pace that was so slow it was almost sleep-inducing. It's not exactly a daring prediction, but I don't think Cowtown Cat will get a similar base on balls in the early stages at Churchill Downs.