Updated on 09/16/2011 6:50AM

Time to consult your inner oracle


HALLANDALE, Fla. - America's racing fans may now start handicapping the Kentucky Derby in earnest. Future wagering on the Derby began Thursday at tracks across the country, and the year's first Grade 1 prep race, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, will be run Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The Derby future wager has grown in popularity since Churchill Downs created it three years ago. Bettors can choose among 23 top contenders or play the "field," consisting of all 3-year-olds. When parimutuel future wagering ends Sunday afternoon, bettors get the closing odds on their selection; those who bet Fusaichi Pegasus at 12-1 two years ago collected that price when he won the Derby as the 2-1 post-time favorite. Two completely separate future pools will be offered in the coming weeks.

The wager not only gives horseplayers the chance to obtain value, it gives them the bragging rights that go to anyone who can spot the Derby winner months in advance. However, horseplayers who pore over the past performance of the 405 Derby nominees may not find many who generate enthusiasm. Some of the most accomplished 3-year-olds have significant knocks against them. And many of the up-and-comers are more hype than substance.

One might assume that there would be widespread enthusiasm for a colt who has a 7-for-7 record and is a champion on two continents. But after Johannesburg dominated his rivals in Europe on turf and then won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on dirt, most serious handicappers were skeptical of his future prospects. Indeed, the most common Derby opinion I have heard from the wise guys is this: "I want to bet against Johannesburg." This British colt benefited from a perfect trip at Belmont Park and still didn't earn a good speed figure; moreover, his pedigree looks iffy at the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance.

Many of the wise guys who disliked Johannesburg after the Breeders' Cup liked third-place finisher Siphonic, who ran well on the disadvantageous rail at Belmont. Siphonic confirmed their opinion - and became the long-range Derby favorite - when he won the Hollywood Futurity in December. But in his

3-year-old debut at Santa Anita he stumbled badly leaving the gate and was soundly beaten. Although Siphonic had a legitimate excuse, he did nothing to enhance his reputation; a bona fide champion might have overcome the trouble better than he did.

Of all the Derby-age horses, none has shown more talent in my opinion than the California speedster Came Home. He's fast, he's gutty, and he has earned the best Beyer Speed Figure of his generation - a 109 in his 3-year-old debut at Santa Anita. (By contrast, Johannesburg ran a 99 in the Breeders' Cup.) He even showed in that race that he's tractable and not a one-dimensional speed horse. Yet there are few passengers on the Came Home bandwagon because of his pedigree. A son of Gone West, he is bred to be a miler and may be gasping for air in the Churchill Downs stretch.

Many of the other prominent 3-year-olds have achieved their reputations by beating weak fields with slow times. The 23 Derby contenders in the future wager include Saarland and Nokoma, who earned speed figures of 87 running one-two in the Remsen Stakes, and several others whose best efforts are almost as slow.

Accordingly, many handicappers are searching for lightly raced late bloomers in the 3-year-old crop. The most talked-about such prospect is Stephentown, who runs in the Fountain of Youth.

Stephentown was visually impressive when he drove through traffic and drew away to win an allowance race at Gulfstream, but his winning time was so slow that this impressive move was somewhat illusory. The Stephentown bubble is likely to be burst when he takes on more seasoned rivals such as Booklet and Harlan's Holiday in the Fountain of Youth. Harlan's Holiday had a difficult trip when Booklet beat him in a stakes race here last month and he should turn the tables to establish himself as the leading 3-year-old in Florida.

But unless someone in the Fountain of Youth delivers an unexpectedly overpowering performance, most evidence suggests that the nation's top 3-year-olds are in California, and that Derby-future bettors should look there for the colt (or filly) who will be draped with roses in May.

The most logical bet in the future wager is probably the field, because there are plenty of good stakes winners among those 382 horses. But there are no bragging rights associated with cashing a bet on the field. So I will take a stab on Came Home, because he could be the most talented colt of his generation and that raw talent might be enough to overcome the weaknesses in his pedigree.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post Company