04/03/2002 1:00AM

Tossing out lines for a Derby catch


The erratic adventures of Sunday Break in the Aqueduct stretch last week might serve as a metaphor for this year's Kentucky Derby prospects. With all the accumulating doubts and disappointments and underwhelming performances, many of us turned eagerly to the sixth race at the Big A on March 27, an allowance race being used by Sunday Break as a prep for the Wood Memorial on April 13. Perhaps would put in the kind of impressive effort that would launch him into the increasingly muddled Derby picture.

Sunday Break's jockey, Gary Stevens, allowed Tomahawk Lake to walk out to an easy, slow pace. Stevens was content to sit second, with Sunday Break under a tight hold.

Then, on the far turn, Sunday Break powered up easily on the outside of the leader and appeared to be ready to draw off in upper stretch. But then Stevens's laid-back handling began to backfire, and the horse ducked in sharply, then bore out and ducked in again until finally drawing off by a 1 1/2 lengths when Stevens regained control in the last few yards.

If you think of the race simply as a workout, and take into account the amount of time Sunday Break spent running sideways, it was fairly impressive. After all, Stevens never took out his whip, so the horse ran all the way under his own power. But the low Beyer Speed Figure figure of 88 raised the cautionary flag we have grown accustomed to seeing with this year's Derby crop.

Perhaps it was just wishful thinking - the search for some sort of clarity - that led me to scrutinize Sunday Break's race so closely. After all, he has a load of strikes against him already:

* In the last 10 years no horse has won the Derby without having run in a stakes race at this stage in his career.

* No recent Derby winner has so much as participated in an allowance race after February of his 3-year-old season.

* While it is true that a handful of recent winners have run in an allowance race early in their 3-year-old campaigns, most of them were given much bigger Beyers, such as Monarchos (103) and Fusaichi Pegasus (103), or were using an allowance as a first race after a layoff, such as Grindstone (92) and Lil E. Tee (91). The only two exceptions were Sea Hero, who ran a 91 on the turf in February of his 3-year-old season, and Charismatic, who is the exception to almost every rule.

For Sunday Break, as for most of the other Derby contenders, the next prep will be crucial. In the next two weeks, and especially in the Blue Grass, the Wood Memorial, and the Santa Anita Derby, we should find out which horses are moving in the right direction - which horses show the promise of peaking on the first Saturday in May. Still, even at this confusing stage there are two useful factors to consider when looking for a horse who has done something unusual, something eye-catching that might separate him from the crowd: speed figures and trips.

Speed figures

The obvious standout here is Came Home. He ran a 108 Beyer at Saratoga last summer. He ran a huge 111 at seven furlongs on Feb. 2. Then he ran a 106 in winning the San Rafael at one mile only four weeks ago. He is a smooth, magnificent running machine, and his speed figures dwarf those of his potential opposition. But his speed-oriented style, his compact strides, and his Gone West-Clever Trick breeding strongly suggest that one mile might be the limit of his best efforts. Still, there are plenty of examples in racing history of horses like him who overcame their distance limitations and defeated less talented rivals. Ruffian and Bold Forbes, for example, actually stretched out successfully all the way to 1 1/2 miles when they faced less talented opponents. Came Home's performance in the Santa Anita Derby should give us some indication as to whether he belongs in that class.


A careful look at the recent Lane's End Spiral on March 23 at Turfway Park points out an infrequently mentioned Derby contender: Perfect Drift.

The speed figures of Perfect Drift are following the pattern of many previously successful Derby runners. As he has stretched out in distance, his Beyers have gone up substantially, from the low- to mid-90's up to a 102 at 1 1/8 miles. And his trip in the Spiral indicates he might relish the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby. While it's true that Spiral third-place finisher Request for Parole might run better when not rushed to the lead, jockey Pat Day probably made the right choice in sending him to the front on Turfway's speed-favoring surface. And Azillion, the second-place finisher, had the most perfect of trips up the rail and failed to sustain his rally.

But Perfect Drift had a mostly wide trip, closed strongly under his own power, and was drawing off at the end - one of the few eye-catching performances by a 3-year-old this year.

Perfect Drift is improving solidly and impressively as the races get longer, and his figures are in the same ballpark as most of the other current contenders. So, is he good enough to win the Derby? Perhaps. But his connections say they might not run him again before the Derby. They might try to prepare him the rest of the way solely on workouts. Perhaps the people calling the shots for Perfect Drift are not aware that in the last 10 years every single Derby winner has run in a stakes race within four weeks of the Kentucky Derby.

Just another cautionary flag.