04/07/2005 12:00AM

Two Derby preps not usual selves


NEW YORK - Horseplayers can claim to be entirely objective and unsentimental about picking their Kentucky Derby horses all they want. The truth is, though, that everything else being equal or even arguably close, New Yorkers will lean toward a horse emerging from the Wood Memorial, while Californians will take someone from the Santa Anita Derby.

Those two races have dominated the last 10 years of Derby preps, yielding the victorious Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, and Funny Cide, as well as deserving favorites Point Given and Empire Maker, but came a cropper last year with weak races won by Tapit and Castledale. The Derby exacta of Smarty Jones and Lion Heart instead came from the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass.

At the moment, that looks like the way to go again in 2005.

The top colts on most Derby lists, including Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch, will be running next Saturday in Hot Springs or Lexington, not this Saturday in Los Angeles or New York City. You could argue that there's not really a top 10 colt in either the Wood or Santa Anita Derby. High Fly and Noble Causeway ran last weekend in the Florida Derby; Sun King, High Limit, Bandini, and Consolidator will run in the Blue Grass; Afleet Alex and Greater Good are taking the Arkansas Derby route; and Rockport Harbor will run either there or in the Lexington a week later. That's 10 colts right there, none of them running on either coast this Saturday.

The field for the Wood, which was inexplicably moved from three to four weeks before the Derby this year, is a far cry from the recent ones that produced Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, Funny Cide, and Empire Maker. The favorite, Bellamy Road, is trainer Nick Zito's fourth-stringer behind Sun King, High Fly, and Noble Causeway, and comes into this off a single allowance-race effort this year. Granted, he won that race by 15 3/4 lengths, but he earned only a moderate Beyer Speed figure of 96 while terrorizing a sorry crew.

Bellamy Road goes into the Wood ranked No. 15 on Derby Watch, and his primary competition should come from Going Wild, whose second to Declan's Moon in the Santa Catalina included some trouble but earned a mediocre Beyer Figure of 93. Then comes the quartet who ran one-two-three-four three weeks ago in a slow and messy Gotham Stakes. Survivalist outstaggered Pavo, with a tiring Galloping Grocer a length back in third and Naughty New Yorker fourth after taking a whip to the face. Most people will like Pavo the best of that bunch for having run the last half-mile with his former rider out of the irons, but I'll be looking for a price on Galloping Grocer, who need only run back to his Remsen last fall to beat these and might be set to do so in his third start of the year.

The Santa Anita Derby is a little rosier because of the intriguing presence of the champion filly Sweet Catomine. She was faster than the nation's best colts last October, but she hasn't seemed to take any steps forward yet this year. Was she an early developer who has hit a plateau, or has she just been toying with overmatched California fillies this year and capable of handling an ordinary bunch of colts?

She meets 10 males Saturday, including Don't Get Mad, Giacomo, and, in a first-ever showdown between a Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies winner, Wilko. Sweet Catomine's victory was 0.44 seconds faster than Wilko's on Breeders' Cup Day, and it will be fascinating to see how far apart they are 23 weeks later.

What everyone is waiting for this year is for someone, anyone, to run a seriously fast race to separate himself from the herd. A Beyer of 108 or higher in a route race has been a virtual prerequisite for a Derby victory in recent years, and the only such performance yet recorded in this crop came from Blues and Royals in Dubai two weeks ago. He hardly inspires confidence, however, as he will not race again until the Derby, giving him precisely one prep race in six months.

A pair of 105's are next best, from colts we will be seeing next weekend, but even those have their asterisks. High Limit's Louisiana Derby and Consolidator's San Felipe were both loose-on-the-lead efforts over tracks that appeared to be carrying speed. Afleet Alex earned a 106 in the Mountain Valley, but that was at only six furlongs, and even if you pin his follow-up non-effort in the Rebel on a lung infection, he remains as big a question at 1 1/4 miles as High Limit and Consolidator.

Someone is probably going to take a big step forward into 108+ territory over the next two weekends. It's just a little hard to find someone in this year's Wood or Santa Anita Derby who looks particularly likely to be the one.