04/18/2007 11:00PM

Tough to say who's for real

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In each of the last six years, the winner of the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland has proceeded to run two weeks later in the Kentucky Derby. Whether the winner of Saturday's 26th running of the Lexington will keep that streak alive remains to be seen, but none of the top contenders has been unequivocally ruled out of the Derby.

Whatever the results of the Grade 2 Lexington, this much is sure: The winner can run in the 133rd Derby if that's what his connections want to do. As the last graded prep race before the May 5 Derby at Churchill Downs, and with a guaranteed purse of $325,000, the winner will earn $201,500, lifting him to no worse than 15th on the that determines entry into the race in case more than 20 horses are entered.

What is less sure is whether the winner will be impressive enough to crash the core of 3-year-olds regarded as the Derby favorites. With ambiguous - if not altogether dubious - sentiments still lingering among handicappers over the radically slow pace and four-horse photo finish that unfolded over Polytrack in the Blue Grass Stakes here last Saturday, the Lexington outcome seemingly would have to be more definitive to become bigger than a blip on the Derby radar screen.

One of the main Lexington contenders is Forty Grams. Trainer Steve Asmussen believes that Forty Grams, a Distorted Humor colt, is capable of winning the Lexington but has reservations about whether he is ready for the heavier heads in the Derby class - a group that just happens to include his Asmussen-trained stablemate, Curlin, the likely Kentucky Derby favorite off his smashing victory last Saturday in the Arkansas Derby.

Asmussen said Forty Grams "is going to have to do a lot better than his last race," which resulted in a disappointing third-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the $600,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park on March 18. "He didn't settle, didn't switch leads, got in a big hurry to do everything. He's capable of a lot better, but he has to go out there and prove it."

Forty Grams, with Garrett Gomez riding, will start from post 1 in the Lexington, which, like all 1 1/16-mile Polytrack races at Keeneland, begins and ends at what otherwise is the sixteenth pole. Owned by the partnership of Alan Pesch, George Bolton, and the Fog City Stable - a group with whom, Asmussen said Wednesday, he has had "absolutely no discussion about running in the Derby" - Forty Grams is listed as the 4-1 third choice on the Keeneland morning line among a field of 10.

The 3-1 favorite is Belgravia (post 8), who will be making his first start since finishing fourth as the favorite in the Dec. 16 Hollywood Futurity. Trainer Patrick Biancone had planned to already have a Derby prep or two into the Mr. Greeley colt, but a serious lung infection in mid-February forced Belgravia to the sidelines for about three weeks. Although Biancone said he intends to use the Lexington as a potential prep for the May 19 Preakness, he said a Derby run remains an outside possibility.

"Everything changes with racing," he said.

The connections of other Lexington contenders are similarly nonchalant about whether a victory will have them banging down the Churchill gates. Trainer Phil Sims said a win by Joe Got Even (post 4), who was steady but unspectacular racing through the winter at Turfway Park, likely would convince him to give the Derby a try, although "we'd have to consider everything involved." Likewise, Todd Pletcher, who already has as many as five starters for the Derby, said Soaring By (post 3), owned by Dogwood Stable, enters the Lexington with no preconceived notions.

"I don't want to say no to the Derby, because if he runs impressively, I might want to say yes," said Pletcher.

With Derby candidates such as Scat Daddy, Circular Quay, and Any Given Saturday having garnered most of the attention from Pletcher's formidable stable, Soaring By has gone along virtually unnoticed. But a dominating score in an entry-level allowance route three weeks ago at Gulfstream Park might be a hint that this Deputy Minister colt is poised for a top effort Saturday, and Pletcher said the Gulfstream race was "much more of what we expected," as opposed to an eighth-place finish in his previous start, the Louisiana Derby.

"The Louisiana Derby was a non-event for him," said Pletcher. "He broke through the gate before the start and never did travel well after that. The Lexington should tell us a lot more about him. You've got the X factors of the [Polytrack] surface and the pace scenario, so it should be a very good test."

The rest of the Lexington field is Boogiemanball (post 2), Moyer's Pond (post 5), Slew's Tizzy (post 6), Trust Your Luck (post 7), Sacrifice Bunt (post 9), and Starbase (post 10).

Trust Your Luck, who was scratched from the Forerunner Stakes on Thursday at Keeneland, finished second in his last start, the March 24 Rushaway Stakes, a Turfway Park race won by eventual Blue Grass winner Dominican. Trust Your Luck is trained by Helen Pitts, who trained Curlin before the colt was purchased privately and moved into the Asmussen stable. Pitts also is the trainer of For You Reppo, who was eliminated from Derby consideration this week with a foot abscess after being scratched from the Arkansas Derby.

The Lexington, the ninth of 10 Saturday races at Keeneland, will be the focus of a one-hour ESPN2 telecast that will be carried on a delayed basis starting at 6 p.m. Eastern. Live post time for the Lexington is 5:20.

The Saturday weather in Lexington is supposed to be superb, with sunny skies and a high temperature in the low 70's.

In other Derby doings:

* The $125,000 Tesio Stakes, an ungraded race Saturday at Pimlico, drew only six 3-year-olds, none with Derby designs. Etude, trained by Richard Small, figures as a heavy favorite while prepping for the Preakness in the 1 1/8-mile Tesio, which carries a 4:26 post time. A replay will be shown on the ESPN2 telecast.

* In the Derby, Curlin will race under the royal blue, gold, and white silks of George Bolton, one of four partners in the colt. Curlin won the Rebel carrying the silks of Stonestreet Stables, the Arkansas Derby under the Padua Stables silks, and will race under the Midnight Cry colors wherever he runs after the Derby, according to Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi.

* Trainer Doug O'Neill had planned Thursday workouts at Keeneland for two of his Derby hopefuls, Liquidity and Cobalt Blue, but postponed the works until Friday, pending his arrival from California.