02/18/2008 12:00AM

Top Derby 10 holds steady

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NEW YORK - It appears nothing happened over the weekend to threaten the status of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby as listed in the first Derby Watch of the year, which saw the light of day last Thursday morning.

Etched, who won both of his starts last year laughing, including a drubbing of the subsequent Kentucky Jockey Club winner Anak Nakal in the Nashua Stakes, could have made a splash. He was, however, a soundly beaten fourth in last Thursday's UAE 2,000 Guineas at Nad Al Sheba. On Saturday in Florida, the highly regarded Cowboy Cal was a disappointing second in the Hallandale Beach Stakes on the turf at Gulfstream Park, while two others listed among the Derby Watch's top 25, Smooth Air and Z Humor, also went down to defeat, finishing third and fifth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Fierce Wind notched his third straight win in the Sam Davis. He was game and proved he could be effective rating off the pace, but his pedestrian Beyer Speed Figure of 85 won't scare anyone.

Things might prove to be very different after what promises to be a very interesting running of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream this Saturday. But in the meantime, the top 10 on the Derby Watch, who are listed according to my future-book Derby odds, can rest easy.

Let's take a quick look at the strengths and weaknesses of each:

War Pass

Strengths: He is, of course, the undefeated 2-year-old champ, and the manner in which he won all of his races by daylight after making all the fractions is somewhat reminiscent of Seattle Slew. And the Beyer Figure of 113 he earned winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is 14 points higher than the best two-turn Beyer earned by any of the other top 10, save for the 105 run by Pyro.

Weaknesses: We don't know yet how he has made the transition from 2 to 3, which is no small matter. Devil's Bag might have been the greatest 2-year-old I ever saw with the exception of Secretariat, but he did not improve from 2 to 3, and his contemporaries caught up to him. Also, since he is a a son of sprint champ Cherokee Run, there are concerns about his distance abilities. But pedigree doesn't seem as important as it used to be when it comes to the Derby. In recent years, we have seen "short-bred" sons of Distorted Humor (Funny Cide) and Elusive Quality (Smarty Jones) win the Derby.

Pyro

Strengths: He couldn't have been more visually impressive winning the Risen Star in his 3-year-old debut, and he has gotten closer to War Pass than anyone else has.

Weaknesses: He can't be expected to finish as strongly as he did in the Risen Star when he will have to keep in contact with a legitimate pace. And he hasn't beaten anyone of note. Even those who finished behind him when he was second to War Pass in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile were of questionable quality.

Court Vision

Strengths: Only a half-length away from being undefeated, and he overcame a tough trip to win the Remsen, often an accurate barometer of quality 3-year-old form.

Weaknesses: His Remsen could have been timed with a sun dial. Yes, the interior fractions were slow, but his winning Beyer was an unsatisfactory 76.

Colonel John

Strengths: He won a two-turn stakes at 2, and was also a good second in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity. And being a son of Tiznow from a Turkoman mare, he figures to blossom with more distance.

Weaknesses: After the CashCall Futurity winner Into Mischief was a disappointing second in his 3-year-old debut, it's fair to question the form of the CashCall. Colonel John is also one of five in the top 10 who have raced only on synthetic tracks, so he is a question mark on conventional dirt, the surface the Derby will be run on.

El Gato Malo

Strengths: He barely drew a deep breath winning all three of his starts in overwhelming fashion, the last two of which were stakes around two turns.

Weaknesses: He got a perfect setup when he won the San Rafael last time out, and he can't expect that kind of good fortune every time. He's another member of the "Synthetic Five."

Monba

Strengths: Some thought he might have been best when he made up a lot of ground finishing fourth in the CashCall Futurity, and he won over Churchill's main track in the second start of his career.

Weaknesses: Many still have difficulty knowing exactly how Beyer Figures earned on synthetic tracks compare with those earned on dirt, but his modest 91 Beyer in the CashCall is his career top.

Crown of Thorns

Strengths: He showed quality and fulfilled the distance orientation

of his pedigree (by Repent, out of

a Thunder Gulch mare) to jump from a maiden romp sprinting to win the Grade 2 Robert Lewis most recently.

Weaknesses: He beat only four opponents in the Lewis, none of whom are even close to being considered Derby contenders. Another member of the "Synthetic Five."

Georgie Boy

Strengths: He showed a powerful late kick running away from Into Mischief in the recent San Vicente, which was easily the best performance of his career, and his first start since he won Southern California's biggest 2-year-old race of the summer, the Del Mar Futurity.

Weaknesses: He is the only one in the top 10 who has yet to race beyond seven furlongs, and some wonder if he might essentially be a late-running sprinter instead of a true distance performer. And, he is yet another member of the "Synthetic Five."

Into Mischief

Strengths: His only outing around two turns was in the CashCall Futurity, and his win in that race was easily the strongest effort of his career. And even though he was beaten in the San Vicente after strangely being sent up to contest the pace, he has never been worse than second.

Weaknesses: Even if he was ridden improperly in the San Vicente, this final member of the "Synthetic Five" was alarmingly empty in the late stages.

Majestic Warrior

Strengths: He showed a stunning move from off the pace to win last summer's Hopeful going away, just like he did in his first start of his career. And though he was a distant sixth to War Pass as the even-money favorite in the Champagne, that can be excused by a hoof injury that surfaced soon after.

Weaknesses: With the exception of Afleet Alex's victory in 2004, the Hopeful is a race many feel has lost its once-proud link to top 3-year-old form.