03/06/2006 1:00AM

Very different stories in Derby preps

Gary I. Rothstein/EQUI-PHOTOS
Corinthian veers in front of First Samurai in Saturday's Fountain of Youth, leading to his disqualification.

NEW YORK - There is no question that the disqualification of Corinthian from first in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes was the correct call by the Gulfstream Park stewards.

Although Corinthian proved to be the best horse on Saturday, and very likely would have won had he kept a straight course through the stretch, the fact is Corinthian violated the rules of racing. Corinthian fouled heavily favored First Samurai twice in the stretch run - first when he came over on First Samurai, the eventual runner-up, nearing the eighth pole, and again when he drifted out on him in deep stretch - and he also might have cost third-place finisher Flashy Bull a shot at second money when he carried First Samurai out into Flashy Bull. If Corinthian ran away and finished first by eight lengths, the decision to disqualify him might have been a tougher call to make. But he finished first by only one length, so taking his number down and moving First Samurai and Flashy Bull up was a no-brainer.

The bigger issue here, however, is why First Samurai was even in a position to be fouled by one of his Fountain of Youth opponents in the first place. He towered over his field on paper; that's why he was the 3-5 favorite. And with the dream trip First Samurai got in the Fountain of Youth, no one should have gotten close enough to him for a foul to be committed.

First Samurai went right to the front and enjoyed an uncontested lead through fractions of 23.86 seconds, 48.30, and 1:12.36, which, in view of the fractions posted in the earlier dirt races on the Gulfstream card, were remarkably slow. In other words, conditions were perfect for First Samurai to record a blowout win. Instead, First Samurai was unable to shake Flashy Bull around the far turn, and was unable to kick with Corinthian when that one tackled him from the outside turning for home. And the chief reason why First Samurai appeared resurgent after he was forced to take up and to the outside of Corinthian in upper stretch was because Corinthian, aside from running all over the track and acting goofy, also pulled himself up after striking the front in the stretch.

The Fountain of Youth was the first start around two turns for First Samurai, who going in was one of the top three candidates for the Kentucky Derby. In that regard, it was a critical race for First Samurai, as critical as a race in early March can be for a prime Derby prospect. But the fouls and the eventful stretch run should not confuse the matter. Considering his past performance and his trip, First Samurai should have been comfortably in front through the stretch, not fighting for his life. That First Samurai struggled the way he did was the first real evidence that he has distance limitations. Of course, First Samurai still has time to improve. But after the Fountain of Youth, it is hard to be encouraged about his chances to get the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby.

Conversely, Brother Derek improved his record around two turns to 4 for 4 with a thoroughly professional victory in Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita.

There was a lot to like about the way Brother Derek performed Saturday. He clearly was not cranked up for his best; there was no need for that with the Kentucky Derby still nine weeks away. Nevertheless, Brother Derek still scored convincingly (by nearly two lengths), and he still ran reasonably fast (he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102, compared with a winning Beyer in the Fountain of Youth of 96).

But the thing that was perhaps most impressive about Brother Derek in the Santa Catalina was the way he was so effective after willingly conceding the early lead. In the past, Brother Derek showed a preference for setting the pace. He led at every call when he won the San Rafael and the Norfolk, and he was right with the early lead when he won the Hollywood Futurity. Speed is still the name of the game in American dirt racing. But when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, front-runners are merely targets, unless one gets an extremely rare pass on the front end like War Emblem got in 2002. So the ability to rate is essential.

Brother Derek was still right with the early leaders on Saturday. But this time, he was content to sit just behind two opponents, Latent Heat and Mister Triester. Brother Derek appeared completely comfortable in that position, and he also had no problem letting Latent Heat carry him to the stretch.

Trainer Dan Hendricks has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he is doing a masterful job bringing Brother Derek up to this Derby in classic fashion. Hendricks is being careful not to take too much out of Brother Derek in his prep races. Yet at the same time, he has made sure his colt will have the right number of prep races and the proper foundation, while also teaching him to be more versatile.

All the while, Brother Derek keeps on winning. And he is looking more each day like the Kentucky Derby candidate all his contemporaries have to catch up to.