02/14/2005 1:00AM

Two Derby preps clearly too few


NEW YORK - There seems to be something going around, and it appears to be fairly contagious. Either several of the most prominent prospects for the Kentucky Derby have a bad case of the "fragiles," meaning they can only be campaigned very judiciously for fear of breaking, or their trainers have lost contact with reality and think they are the reincarnation of Charlie Whittingham.

Declan's Moon, Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor, and Wilko are four of the top, if not the top four, contenders for the Derby. Yet, as the schedules currently stand, they each will have only two starts as 3-year-olds before they head to Churchill Downs to run on the first Saturday in May. Declan's Moon and Wilko are to make their 3-year-old debuts in the Santa Catalina on March 5, after which, presumably, it will be on to the April 9 Santa Anita Derby as a final Kentucky Derby prep. For both Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor, the plan is to make their first starts of the year in the Rebel Stakes on March 19, then run their final Derby prep in the Arkansas Derby April 16. And these four could get more company in the two-Derby-prep brigade, depending on how much havoc Roman Ruler's quarter crack wreaks on his schedule, and if Closing Argument goes to Dubai for the UAE Derby.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of this, other than it complicates an already typically blurry Kentucky Derby picture. If Declan's Moon, Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor, or Wilko is to win the Derby, he is going to have to accomplish something that has worked just once in the last 57 years, and that is to win off two preps as a 3-year-old.

The last time this was done was 22 years ago, when Sunny's Halo came off victories in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby to score in Louisville in a Derby field that turned out to be uninspiring. Oh, Slew o' Gold did finish fourth, but he wasn't nearly the horse then that he became later in his 3-year-old season and at age 4. And for what it's worth, Sunny's Halo won only one of six starts after the Derby. Before Sunny's Halo, you have to go back to Jet Pilot in 1947 for the next most recent winner of the Derby off only two starts as a 3-year-old.

The most obvious explanation for this is that because the Derby is the most difficult race in America to win and the first time American-based 3-year-olds are asked to race 1 1/4 miles, there is an extraordinary premium on foundation and seasoning. Whatever the other reasons may be, if a 3-year-old as good as Point Given could not win the Derby off two preps, it makes you wonder why anyone else would consider trying.

In 2001, Point Given was as dominant member of a division as you could ask for. At 9-5, he was the shortest-priced favorite in the Derby since Arazi in 1992 on the basis of overwhelming victories in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. There was some talk at the time that he was getting only two Derby preps because his people wanted him fresh for the Belmont Stakes. He was fresh for the Belmont. After winning the Preakness with an awesome middle move, Point Given won the Belmont by more than 12 lengths and then came back to win the Haskell and Travers before retiring early. But in the Derby, Point Given packed it in after middle-moving and finished fifth, beaten 11 1/2 lengths, the only time in his career he finished worse than second.

You would have thought there was a lesson to be learned there, but in the very next Derby in 2002, five starters - Proud Citizen, Johannesburg, Essence of Dubai, Saarland, and Castle Gandolfo - tried to win off two or fewer 3-year-old preps. There were only three who tried to do that in 2003 - Peace Rules, Outta Here, and Indian Express. But last year, incredibly, there were six who tried to win the Derby on short-prepping - Lion Heart, Read the Footnotes, Birdstone, Tapit, Castledale, and Friends Lake - and, of course, they failed.

In fairness, it should be noted that Proud Citizen and Lion Heart finished second, and Peace Rules finished third. But the purpose of this long road to the Kentucky Derby is to produce the winner, not the second- or third-place finisher.

Many of these horses were well supported in the betting. The closing odds of Johannesburg, Essence of Dubai, Saarland, Castle Gandolfo, Peace Rules, Indian Express, Lion Heart, and Tapit were all in either single digits or low teens. These weren't hopeless bums.

Eventually, if enough horses are given only two preps, there will be another such horse to win the Derby. "Eventually" even could be this year. But with history, both recent and 57 years' worth strongly suggesting no, do you really want to bet on it?