04/03/2008 11:00PM

War Pass key to Big Brown's Derby

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There is a lot to like about this time of year if you are a racing fan. This is Keeneland's opening weekend of the spring meet, and Pool 3 of Churchill's Kentucky Derby Future Wager will give you one last chance to lock up an early rooting interest for that race.

Let's take a look at Pool 3 first. Anyone who watched Big Brown overcome post 12 and toy with his 11 opponents in the Florida Derby had to be impressed, especially when it is noted that he was making only his third career start that day. He is still figuring out how to be a racehorse at this stage of the game, so it is scary to think about how much better he might become when he gets a few more races under his belt.

I'm not the type of handicapper who likes to take low odds on anything, but when I take a look at the

7-2 odds estimate for Big Brown made by Daily Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker, I have to admit that it is probably an overlay. But there is a catch. I believe that the probable pace scenario of the Kentucky Derby will be the key to betting on Pool 3, and the key to that pace scenario is War Pass. I like Big Brown much better than I like War Pass, but both of those horses have lots of early speed and they are both likely to show that early speed regardless of whether or not it is prudent for them to do so. If they are both in the starting gate at Churchill on the first Saturday in May, it won't be prudent for them to duel. While I don't think War Pass will win the race, I believe that he is probably good enough to prevent Big Brown from winning it.

With that in mind, War Pass's performance in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday could go a long way toward determining the likely pace scenario of the Kentucky Derby. If War Pass rebounds from his last-place finish in the Tampa Derby, his connections will probably want to run in the Kentucky Derby, and Big Brown's chances will be compromised. If that turns out to be the case, 7-2 will no longer be a bargain price on Big Brown, and I will start shopping for a horse who can win from off the pace in Pool 3.

But if War Pass loses the Wood, and particularly if he loses decisively, Big Brown's chances will look much better as War Pass will probably skip the Kentucky Derby. That would probably allow Big Brown to run his race the way he wants to - with a clear lead for as long as he is good enough to maintain it. So if War Pass loses the Wood, Big Brown is the horse to bet on in Pool 3.

If War Pass wins the Wood, I know that many handicappers who are looking for a closer in the Kentucky Derby are going to be very tempted to bet on Pyro. That might very well turn out to be the right move, but he won't offer much betting value at Watchmaker's 4-1 price, and there are other ways to go. We'll get a better line on how good Denis of Cork is based on his performance in the Illinois Derby, which will also be run Saturday. His closing kick makes him an interesting candidate. And it is important to remember that you don't necessarily need a deep closer.

Cool Coal Man rated kindly enough in fourth in the Fountain of Youth and could get a good trip behind a faster pace in the Kentucky Derby. Getting the chance to make the first run at the tiring leaders might turn out to be a very good trip, and his estimated 20-1 odds are attractive in Pool 3. He'll be worth a bet.

Lafayette Stakes

Meanwhile, in Lexington, it will probably be a good idea to play cautiously at Keeneland while getting an idea about how the Polytrack surface is playing. Sunday's feature race is the seven-furlong Lafayette, a race for 3-year-olds with a $100,000 purse. Kodiak Kowboy won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special last year and looks best following a dominant comeback win in a $75,000 optional claiming race at Oaklawn. Eaton's Gift, who has won 3 of his last 4 races, including the Grade 2 Swale at Gulfstream, is the likely speed and a prime contender. But he might be pressed early by Cush, who has shown more speed than usual in his last two races. Eaton's Gift can take this field a long way, but I believe Kodiak Kowboy can track him early and slip past him late. Hatta Fort might add some betting value to the exotics. He will be making his first North American start for Saeed bin Suroor, who shows 35 percent wins, and a generous $3.09 return on investment from a sample of 17 starters in that situation.