12/30/2003 12:00AM

Timo's imposing but not invincible

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MIAMI - Anybody who watched explode through the stretch to win the Mecke Stakes will probably be hard pressed to bet against him in Thursday's $100,000 Tropical Park Derby. But with a full gate of newly turned, and in many cases improving, 3-year-olds in the field, Calder's New Year's Day feature appears to be anything but a one-horse race.

As always, the Grade 3, 1 1/8-mile Tropical Park Derby is the nation's first graded stakes of the year. It will again share top billing on the card with its filly counterpart, the $100,000 Tropical Oaks.

Timo used an impressive burst of speed to rally from the rear of the pack and outfinish Imperialism and Cool Conductor to post a half-length decision in the Mecke. The victory was the third in five starts on grass for Timo, who also captured Belmont's Pilgrim Stakes over a soft course five weeks earlier.

Imperialism and Cool Conductor each get another shot at Timo in the Tropical Park Derby.

Imperialism finished full of run in the Mecke after breaking slowly and being forced to rally four wide into the stretch. A versatile horse, Imperialism won his first-level allowance condition over a sloppy main track.

Trainer Angel Salinas has secured the services of John Velazquez to ride Imperialism for the first time in the Tropical Derby.

Cool Conductor has a habit of breaking slowly in his races and did so again in the Mecke despite being equipped with blinkers for the first time. He recovered and opened a clear lead near midstretch before tiring.

The best of the new faces in the Tropical Derby appears to be Commendation, who, unlike his older sister Take Charge Lady, seems much better suited to grass than dirt. Like Timo, Commendation has already won three races on grass, including Keeneland's Bourbon County Stakes by 2 3/4 lengths. He returned to the main track in his 2-year-old finale, finishing fourth behind The Cliff's Edge in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

"He didn't disgrace himself on the dirt the last time, but he's obviously shown so far he's probably going to be better on the turf, which makes no sense according to his pedigree," said Commendation's trainer, Graham Motion. "I think he's a much better horse now than when he suffered his only loss on grass in Canada, especially since he's learned to relax after we took the blinkers off."