02/09/2005 12:00AM

Tread carefully the Derby trail


ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that the names of the lucky 358 Triple Crown nominees have been announced, Kentucky Derby Fever is officially sweeping the land.

The symptoms are consistent with most viral maladies, notorious for lying in wait and hiding in dark corners of the bloodstream until stress, exhaustion, or a call from Jay Privman and his "Derby Doings" triggers a relapse.

There will be night sweats, dry throat, nausea, and blurred vision, many times accompanied by a sudden, irrational interest in Thoroughbred racing websites and a craving for all things fried. Those who have never experienced Derby Fever before need to be aware that the physical sensations can resemble those more often associated with tax audits or root canals. There is, sadly, no known cure.

There are, however, a number of ways to manage the symptoms. Those owners and trainers who advance to the late stages of Derby Fever - better known as Derby Weak - would be wise to be prepared. Derby Fever does not kill, but it can leave scars. For what it's worth, the following tricks may help:

* Understand that the Kentucky Derby takes place in a red state, unlike the blue-state homes of the Preakness and Belmont. The climate could aggravate the fever, especially for those who have contracted KDF in New York or California. For those sufferers, it is recommended that they adopt a humble manner, hat in hand, and avoid being seen in public eating brie or drinking white wine, lest they be flogged as cultural heretics and mocked for their Derby Fever sores.

* Bring more money than you can imagine, then double it. Yes, the Derby purse is now $2 million. But guess who pays for more than half with their nominating, entry, and starting fees? Yep, it's the fever-stricken horse owners, palms damp and beads of sweat dropping on their checkbooks as they sign.

* Learn the lingo and practice the conjugation of the term "Y'all" and its many uses, including the possessive ("Is that y'all's limo on fire over there?"), the demonstrative ("Y'all're sitting on my box lunch"), and the eerily repetitive ("Hey, all y'all! Look at the size of that guy's head!").

* Finally, prepare to say goodbye to your horse, for there is usually a price to pay for Derby Fever beyond the two-day Churchill Downs ticket package that sometimes requires a second mortgage. Those prices are paid by the horses involved.

It can be argued that today's 3-year-old Thoroughbreds are barely bred to get a mile in stiff company, let alone a mile and a quarter in the spring of a growing year. The end result can be a good party and a ruined racehorse, or at least a severely compromised 3-year-old campaign. Still, the Derby field will be full, as it was last year, when 20 were entered (although two were scratched).

Curious to know what those 18 have done since? Well, Smarty Jones we know about. Won the Preakness, broke millions of hearts in the Belmont, syndicated for $39 million, and retired. Birdstone was also high profile, with three post-Derby starts and wins in the Belmont and the Travers. He, too, has been retired.

Here is what happened to the other 16, including their records since running in the 2004 Derby:

Action This Day: 0 for 2, retired.

Borrego: 0 for 4, in training.

Castledale: 0 for 2, in training.

Friends Lake: 0 for 1, retired.

Imperialism: 0 for 6, in training.

Limehouse: 0 for 3, in training.

Lion Heart: 2 for 4, retired.

Master David: 0 for 4, in training.

Minister Eric: 1 for 3, in training.

Pollard's Vision: 2 for 6, in training.

Pro Prado: 0 for 3, in training.

Quintons Gold Rush: 1 for 4, deceased.

Read the Footnotes: 0 for 0, retired.

Song of the Sword: 1 for 4, in training.

Tapit: 0 for 1, retired.

The Cliff's Edge: 0 for 4, retired.

Not bad, considering. Half of the 18 are still in some kind of training. Seven of the 18 managed to win at least one race since their Derby experience, and one of them - Minister Eric - is the first of the group to become a stakes winner this year at age 4. Remember, though, these 18 were anointed the finest of their generation last spring at Churchill Downs, where Thoroughbred racing annually intersects with all the excesses of modern sports hyperbole. Since then, the chosen 18 have won just 10 of 56 starts.

"To me the more important thing is having a horse left after the Derby," said Frank Lyons, TVG analyst and co-owner of Castledale, who finished 14th the 2004 Derby. "He had some issues after the race, but giving him a full 90 days off helped a lot. Now it's just a question of doing the right thing by him."

Castledale has yet to return to the form that won the 2004 Santa Anita Derby and propelled him to Kentucky. After his long break, he has run twice this year, finishing off the board in the San Fernando and the Strub at Santa Anita. Lyons predicts the colt will be heard from again.

"As far as the Derby's concerned, we definitely get too eager to be there sometimes," Lyons said. "There's a tendency to turn a blind eye to certain things, push when a good trainer wouldn't push, and sacrifice a lot just for the thrill of hearing 'My Old Kentucky Home.'"

Blame it on the fever.