04/28/2004 11:00PM

Time to toss conventional rules

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NEW YORK - Is everyone just whining about what an impossible Kentucky Derby this is to handicap? Isn't the world's most famous race supposed to be a skullbusting puzzle?

It's always tough, thanks to a full field, the volatility of 3-year-olds in the spring, and the new challenge of 1 1/4 miles. This Derby, though, really is different and more difficult than ever, for two specific reasons.

The first is a set of unusual circumstances that has made interpretation of the traditional major prep races extremely challenging. In most years, it is clear which races attracted the best fields and were run in the swiftest adjusted times, and the Derby lineup can at least be separated into legitimate contenders and those who are a cut below.

This year, however, there are asterisks and footnotes attached to almost every key prep. Read the Footnotes's Fountain of Youth appeared to be a brilliantly fast race on a day of brilliantly fast performances at Gulfstream, but no one has been running back to those races. Then he failed in the Florida Derby, a race that seemed to come up impossibly slow amid widespread criticism of the way the racetrack was maintained.

Super Saturday yielded the three Derby favorites through the victories of The Cliff's Edge, Smarty Jones, and Tapit, but further confusion emerged from the times they hung up. The Cliff's Edge's and Smarty Jones's races seemed too fast to fit with the rest of the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby cards, while Tapit's Wood looked improbably slow on a day of blazing Aqueduct sprints.

Being unable to trust the numbers is only half of this year's unique problem. The other factor is that this year many serious contenders are being trained and campaigned in ways that contradict established, historical patterns.

It is the culmination of an ongoing and radical 20-year evolution in American training philosophy, in which fewer and more widely spaced starts are now favored. Do the old rules, requiring three starts at 3 and an April prep, still apply? If they do, you have to draw a line through Tapit, Read the Footnotes, Lion Heart, Castledale, Friends Lake, and Birdstone - who collectively have won the Champagne, Remsen, Hollywood Futurity, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial.

So what's a handicapper to do? Personally, I'm going five deep in the race with a minimum of confidence and the full knowledge that I'm leaving some obviously talented runners off my tickets. Lion Heart and Smarty Jones, for example, are admirable and quick horses but I will be betting that the Derby is just a little too far for them.

Instead, in alphabetical order, I will use Birdstone, Master David, Read the Footnotes, Tapit, and The Cliff's Edge.

Birdstone is my shakiest and most whimsical selection, and in part I'm using him solely because the Churchill linemaker has rated him the single longest shot in the field at 50-1. He's a much better horse than that. He has only had two races this year and comes in off a six-week layoff, but his 3-year-old debut was okay and his other start was completely forgivable over a wet track.

Master David ran second to Read the Footnotes in last year's best 2-year-old stakes, the Remsen, and second to Tapit in the Wood off a nine-week layoff and at less than his best. He figures to move forward now for Bobby Frankel and has enough tactical speed to work out a good trip.

Read the Footnotes comes in off a troubling seven-week layoff but his Remsen and Fountain of Youth may well have been the best performances to date in this crop. I have no confidence he will be fit enough to win at 1 1/4 miles but I'm not leaving out the potentially fastest horse at 12-1.

Tapit has just four career starts and two preps, and has yet to exceed a lowly 98 Beyer Speed Figure, but if any trainer can overcome all that it's Michael Dickinson. While Tapit is possibly an underlay in the 7-1 neighborhood, he's also the one horse who made me say "wow" this spring, as he circled the field in the Wood and won while running only in spots. He wasn't completely fit and healthy that day and while he will have to improve, there's a very good chance that he will.

The Cliff's Edge is the most solid, logical horse in the field, meeting all the old rules, coming in off a good Blue Grass victory and sporting two stakes triumphs over the Churchill track last fall. The downside is that before the Blue Grass, he couldn't beat top-class company and he will have to run down better finishers than Lion Heart this time around.

If I have to put them in order, let's say Tapit, Read the Footnotes, Master David, The Cliff's Edge, and Birdstone. When all else fails, go with your "wow."