03/24/2010 12:00AM

Three weeks left to find a hidden gem


PHILADELPHIA - Five weeks out, I feel about like I did as I was filling out my bracket sheet a few hours after the Selection Show. I knew most of the teams. I didn't exactly know how they would match up against each other. Which is the fun and intrigue of the NCAA Tournament.

Matchups are why we got Northern Iowa, Cornell, and Saint Mary's in the Sweet 16. These three are not exactly Giacomo or Mine That Bird, but, with millions of brackets floating about, there could not have been many with those three each winning two games.

Well, the next three Saturdays are horse racing's equivalent of the NCAA Tournament, with a slight pause before all the survivors arrive in Louisville for the championship event.

I would really like to tell you I have some great insight at this point. I don't. I basically know what everybody else knows.

Next Saturday's Wood Memorial appears to be the regional final with the most cache. Eskendereya's 106 Beyer in the Fountain of Youth still stands out in this year of mediocre Beyer performances, at least up to this point.

If the son of Giant's Causeway runs at Aqueduct like he did at Gulfstream, the identity of the Derby favorite, if not the winner, will be obvious. And, given Eskendereya's running style, he really should not have matchup issues.

I am really looking forward to seeing A Little Warm in Saturday's Louisiana Derby. The Beyers are right there with every contender but Eskendereya. Running a close second to D' Funnybone in the Hutcheson looked even better after D' Funnybone romped in the Swale.

And, of course, there is the Pha angle. A Little Warm won his maiden at Philadelphia Park, the home of champions.

Everywhere you look on the contender list, the names Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher keep appearing, sort of like Kansas, North Carolina, Connecticut, and UCLA typically do in basketball. Well, proving how difficult it is to win championships and that nothing should be taken for granted, superpowers, UNC, UConn, and UCLA, representing 18 national championships, were not even good enough to gain entrance into the 2010 tournament.

Which, by the way, their omissions were based on actual performance in actual games and not on graded stakes earnings. I am unaware of anything in racing where a field would be formed based on graded stakes earnings and not actual performance. Nothing like that would ever happen in a sport as organized as horse racing.

Pletcher and Baffert, however, are into the "tournament'' with serious contenders such as Eskendereya, Discreetly Mine, Lookin At Lucky, and Conveyance, among others.

Showing how fragile it is, Kansas, the Eskendereya of the NCAA, had the misfortune of running into its kryptonite before it could even get past the first weekend. Northern Iowa was allowed to cruise on the lead in moderate fractions. The favorite sat back, waiting for the cheap speed to collapse. Kansas is still waiting.

And when my man Ali (I am not going try to spell his last name, he is just Ali) was thinking about launching that three with 30 seconds on the shot clock and 35 seconds left in the game, I was yelling at him to shoot it, as all the purists were yelling at him to try to dribble out the clock.

Upsets do not happen without risk. Ali's shot was pure. Kansas was gone. And another lesson was learned.

Styles win games, just as they win horse races.

So watch styles over these next three weekends. Check out how races are run and how individual horses run in them. Find a few horses that really intrigue you and watch them very closely.

Tempted To Tapit, running in Sunday's Sunland Derby, is fascinating. This colt has real talent. Let's see how he runs. And then try to project how he runs in New Mexico into how he might run in the Kentucky Derby.

Discreetly Mine won the Risen Star on the lead without much pressure. What will happen in the Louisiana Derby if he gets more pace pressure? Does he fight? Does he collapse? Or is it somewhere in between?

I am not sure what we are going to learn from Saturday's UAE Derby or Lane's End. I also wonder if $26 million has ever been given away to more horses with less accomplishment than will be dealt out on World Cup Day in Dubai. And I really wonder if Presious Passion can go all the way on the grass in the desert.

In addition to the Wood next Saturday, we have the Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Then, the next Saturday, the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, the day after Zenyatta, a horse who can't lose even after being retired, tries for 16. Last I tuned in, Rachel Alexandra was going to be running there as well. Apparently, while I was contemplating the field of 65, I missed Rachel's comeback race in Louisiana. I am told it didn't go well.

So, pay attention. The clues will be there. We just have to see them and interpret them correctly. Then, we might come up with the horse racing equivalent of Northern Iowa. Giacomo or Mine That Bird? That's asking too much. There are no clues for that.