03/26/2004 12:00AM

Trying to skim cream of weak crop

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PHOENIX - It matters little to me whether the 3-year-old crop is weak or not - this is the hand we have been dealt. The Derby winner is going to be one of these familiar faces. So it's not Secretariat or Seattle Slew - get over it. Your job as a handicapper isn't to see what might be there or should be there or could be there. It is to see what is there and act upon it.

Of course, things would be a whole lot easier if we could come up with a true assessment on some issues. There are five issues that come immediately to mind regarding this year's Derby:

* How do we gauge juvenile champion Action This Day?

The way he has been railed against you would think he finished last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile instead of winning it. Was it his fault Birdstone, Ruler's Court, Eurosilver, Tapit and others weren't in the Juvenile? Of course not. Yes, it set up for him - so what? It's great when a race sets up for you and you take advantage. Some of the same people who blast him for having the Juvenile set up for him are the same ones who laud Eurosilver for his Breeders' Futurity win at Keeneland. But didn't that race set up perfectly for him, too? Many who knock him for beating Chapel Royal and Tiger Hunt in the Juvenile give points to Birdstone for beating Chapel Royal and Eurosilver for beating Tiger Hunt. Others mock Action This Day's Juvenile saying it wasn't fast enough, that he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of a mere 92. Well, a big Beyer in the BC Juvenile has had no correlation to how a horse has run in the Derby. There have been horses who ran in slow Juveniles who came back to run well in the Derby (Alysheba and Sea Hero, for example).

As far as this year goes, Action This Day took the right necessary first step with a good fourth-place finish in the Sham. He made no run in the San Felipe, but have somebody run up your rear and stomp on the back of your leg while you're running and see if you don't come up dull, too.

We can't yet eliminate Action This Day. He hasn't run quickly yet, but few in this division have really routed fast.

* Is Nick Zito's trio heading in the right direction?

Eurosilver hasn't run two turns this year and now is out of the Blue Grass. Birdstone may not have liked the inside or the sealed track at Turfway last time, but he never moved a muscle. The Cliff's Edge ran on decently in the Florida Derby, but was it enough of a move that you can expect him to get better and come home faster in the Derby?

Zito has carefully campaigned them. Too carefully? Eurosilver had shin issues after his Breeders' Futurity win, and Birdstone was put away last fall, so both missed the BC Juvenile. The Cliff's Edge has run well at Churchill and campaigned steadily. At least he may have the necessary fitness and experience, but are the other two simply going to be hardened enough? Remember, Zito's two Derby winners (Strike the Gold and Go for Gin) were toughened by full campaigns as 2-year-olds and as young 3-year-olds.

* Can Rock Hard Ten go from maiden to Derby winner in just over two months?

On the face of it, this simply looks like too big an obstacle, and there is 122 years of history working against him. That said, if someone is ever going to bust this trend wide-open, wouldn't it be a strapping, talented runner in a year where the power in the division seems weak? I can envision him losing the Santa Anita Derby next week, but it wouldn't stun me to see him run well, finishing up strongly like Real Quiet did before he won the Derby. Yes, it's a huge hurdle, but to pooh-pooh his chances just yet seems rash.

* Can a filly do the job?

Every year we get this. If the fillies run faster than the colts in the Breeders' Cup, people want to see the fillies face the boys in the Derby. Fillies often run faster at 2 than colts because fillies, like their human counterparts, mature faster than males. Think of 2-year-old horses like 12-year-old humans - at that age a girl can whip a boy at many physical endeavors. Think, however, of 3-year-old horses like 18-year-old humans. By this time human males have physically matured. It's the same with horses. There is a reason only three fillies have won the Derby. When Winning Colors did it in 1998 she had been running faster than the males. This year's fillies are not routing as fast as even these suspect males.

* Was the Florida Derby really that bad?

There are times when the clock doesn't do a race justice, and I believe this is one of them. By all measurements this race was slow. Maybe it was the track. Who knows? But know this - Read the Footnotes had already earned a Beyer Figure of 113, and Value Plus had already run a Beyer of 108, so these weren't slow horses. I remember a few years ago when A. P. Indy won the Santa Anita Derby he was maligned because it was a slow race. Of course, he didn't turn out any good, did he? In other words, I'd take the poor fig with a grain of salt - unless a number of the Florida Derby horses come back in next couple weeks to run slowly again.