04/04/2007 11:00PM

Tough to separate Wood's top pair

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NEW YORK - The showdown between Any Given Saturday and Nobiz Like Shobiz in the 83rd Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday is by far the best of the weekend's Kentucky Derby preps. Picking the betting favorite is as close a call as picking the winner in a fascinating matchup between two colts with all the earmarks of quality - despite both coming off defeats as 3-5 favorites last time out.

Any Given Saturday's nose came out on the wrong end of a photo finish with Street Sense, the champion 2-year-old, in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 17. Reasonable handicappers can disagree about whose effort was better that day. Street Sense covered less ground slipping through at the rail, but was making his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Any Given Saturday lost ground on both turns, but had the benefit of a recent race over the track.

However you fine-line it, Any Given Saturday clearly belongs near the very top of the division off that race. It was only his second defeat in five career starts, the other being a similarly gallant second to the since-sidelined Tiz Wonderful in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.

The morning line for the Tampa Bay Derby had Street Sense 6-5 and Any Given Saturday 9-5, but the crowd veered the other way, betting Street Sense to 6-5 while making Any Given Saturday 70 cents on the dollar. That was still a dime higher than Nobiz Like Shobiz was two weeks earlier in the Fountain of Youth, where he seemed poised to toy with a field where his principal opponent appeared to be Scat Daddy, who had edged him in the Champagne last fall but a horse he had come back to thrash in the Holy Bull.

Instead, Nobiz Like Shobiz ran a disappointing third with no apparent or subsequent excuse beyond his ongoing greenness. He was close to unusually quick early fractions but couldn't even outkick pacesetting Stormello for second down the lane as Scat Daddy ran by them all through a glacial final furlong.

What his many fans found most discouraging was that Nobiz Like Shobiz seemed no faster or more mature than he was last fall. The Beyer Speed Figures for his five career starts start at an unusually high level but show no progression: 96, 92, 97, 98, 94. Any Given Saturday's five Beyers reflect a more traditional pattern of improvement: 71, 80, 100, 95, 102.

The other more hopeful way to look at it on Nobiz Like Shobiz's behalf is that he still is eligible to move forward off his high plateau, especially if the addition of blinkers Saturday provides the intended focus. These are two nice colts with room to improve in their sixth career starts, but it feels like we may already have seen something close to Any Given Saturday's best but have yet to see anything close to Nobiz Like Shobiz's best.

This isn't precisely the matchup that had been expected for the Wood. Circular Quay, not Any Given Saturday, was supposed to represent the Todd Pletcher armada, but the trainer decided earlier this week to train Circular Quay up to the Derby and send Any Given Saturday to the Wood instead of the Blue Grass a week later. While a number of factors and rationalizations went into the decision, chief among them was the question of earnings, because Any Given Saturday has graded stakes earnings of only $102,969, dangerously close to the likely cutoff point for the 20th and final spot in the Derby gate.

While running against Nobiz Like Shobiz is no cakewalk, Any Given Saturday would have to seriously misfire not to finish at least second, which might not have been as safe a bet against what may be a larger and deeper field in the Blue Grass. It seems absurd that Any Given Saturday could be excluded from the Kentucky Derby field if it were drawn today, having been beaten just a nose by Street Sense, but this is a function of Churchill Downs's insistence on using dollars rather than a points system for graded stakes performances.

For example, Any Given Saturday has barely a quarter of the earnings of Jack Junior, a maiden who was beaten 9 1/2 lengths in his last start. But that start was in the $2 million UAE Derby, a race where somebody had to be second in an otherwise dismal field behind a runaway winner (Asiatic Boy, a Southern Hemisphere 4-year-old who is not eligible to the Kentucky Derby). Perhaps the reality that a maiden coming off a trouncing has sewn up a Derby berth, conceivably at the expense of Any Given Saturday, will be the final straw that convinces Churchill to revisit its rules for making the Derby cut.