04/28/2004 12:00AM

Using Beyers to winnow Derby down to five

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BOSTON - What's the point of complaining? We know that this year's Derby can't be handicapped. But that doesn't let us off the hook. Everybody has to have an opinion. It's compulsory - part of our solemn duty as horseplayers. So. . . .

Pretenders

* Action This Day: Recent figures of 84 and 89 just won't get it done.

* Limehouse: Steady figures in 2004 (100-100-99), but showing no sign of improvement.

* St Averil: Poor Beyer of 86 in his last race; distance a big question.

* Birdstone: Shows no improvement at all from his 2-year-old season.

* Minister Eric: Recent Beyers of only 101-100 against allowance competition.

* Master David: Could improve, but his Beyers have stagnated and he had a perfect trip in the Wood Memorial.

* Song of the Sword: Good effort in the Illinois Derby (103), but Lexington was mediocre.

* Wimbledon: If you can throw out his Santa Anita Derby, he could threaten for a minor position. Best Beyer of 101 not impressive enough; last race poor.

* Friends Lake: Coming off a seven-week layoff, exiting slow Florida Derby. Too much to ask.

Some experts have questioned the accuracy of that lowly Beyer Speed Figure for the Florida Derby back on March 13. These skeptics ask: If the figure for the Florida Derby was so bad, how could both Tapit and The Cliff's Edge come back to win big next time out and dramatically improve their Beyers? Unfortunately, what these experts are not telling you is that two other runners have come out of the Florida Derby and actually run much worse: Value Plus fell from a 91 in the Florida Derby to an 84 in his next start, and Farnum Alley dropped from an 85 to a 52. You need to look at the full picture.

Contenders

* Lion Heart: Has run gamely with big Beyers, but I'm guessing his speed will not carry him the longer distance after so many tough efforts.

* Pollard's Vision: Big Beyer in the Illinois Derby came after a perfect, loose-on-the-lead trip. Should be able to rate, but can he deliver a big-enough figure under the less ideal circumstances he will face in Kentucky?

* Read the Footnotes: Clearly among the most talented in the field. Has the biggest Beyer of 113 in the Fountain of Youth. But he will probably be too close to the pace, and the seven-week layoff could hurt him in the final eighth.

* Borrego: Solid, improving performer, but coming off a perfect trip on a wet track in the Arkansas Derby. Eligible for a minor share.

* Imperialism: Strong Beyers of 100-104-101 in most recent races, but don't exaggerate trouble he had in the Santa Anita Derby. He was closing only mildly after sitting in a perfect spot.

Selections

* Tapit: Has potential for explosive late run. Beyer Figures poised for dramatic increase.

* Castledale: Not so impressive visually in the Santa Anita Derby, but I'm guessing that race will produce solid performers at Churchill Downs. Quintons Gold Rush already came back to win the Lexington.

* The Cliff's Edge: The proverbial double-edged sword. Could bounce sky-high after 111 Beyer in the Blue Grass. Or, like many big-figure predecessors, could repeat that effort in the Derby. Working very well.

* Smarty Jones: Very impressive wins in last two races. Needs to rate behind Lion Heart.

* Quintons Gold Rush: Gradually improving Beyers indicate he could be peaking at just the right time.

Warnings

* Speed figures are not at their most insightful with talented, young, developing 3-year-olds.

* Even a pretender can plod along and finish third or fourth, especially if the pace is fast, the cavalry charge destroys its share of contenders, and the pieces are there to be picked up in the final yards.

* Save some money for Rock Hard Ten. He's your Preakness winner.