03/20/2008 12:00AM

War Pass's clunker: Right result, wrong time


PHILADELPHIA - This game is so difficult that any edge, no matter how undeveloped, has to be taken under advisement. To play this game correctly, you have to be willing to listen and have an open mind. Do that and you can sometimes put yourself in position to make a score, if you have the patience to wait for it.

I start thinking about the next Kentucky Derby superfecta a few seconds after I miss the Derby superfecta. This bet has my name on it. It is just a question of when and how much.

I have found all kinds of ways to miss the payoff. Without getting into all the details, I have had a few good opinions. Just not enough of them at the same time.

Over the past few weeks, I started to have a feeling that this really was going to be the year. I heard something that really intrigued me.

A sharp friend of mine, someone who has been in the business for quite some time, was at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 24. He wandered into the paddock to check out War Pass. Just wanted a peek at the champ.

He saw nothing amiss, as the colt got ready for his 3-year-old debut. It was a glorified workout against hopeless competition. Still, my friend left the paddock with some concerns.

When he came back, he told me he did not think War Pass had the kind of physique that would have him at his best by Derby time. Physically, he was no Curlin.

I asked the obvious question. Was there some chance War Pass could be a Derby toss-out? He said "yes.''

I filed away his thoughts for future reference.

We all had seen War Pass. We knew how fast and how talented he looked. What we did not know was how the colt would withstand the run-up to the Derby. Some handle it. Some fall apart.

What we also did not know was what might happen if some horse ever beat War Pass to the front. It is the same question we ask every day at the track. What happens when this speedball does not make the lead? How will the horse react?

Frankly, I had no way to answer the question in relation to War Pass. Nobody did.

But as the Derby drew nearer, I planned to ask my friend what he saw. And I began to formulate a strategy.

If my friend still felt strongly about War Pass, if the colt was still unbeaten while looking unbeatable and the Derby had the kind of speed to keep the colt from a clear lead, I was more than willing to remove War Pass from the superfecta equation and get rid of most of the competition. There was, of course, the matter of the other 19 horses and how to sort through all that to create a bet. But that was for another time.

I believe lone speed can win another way when I see it. And not a second before I see it.

When that lone speed is likely to be a heavy favorite in a huge field where pace meltdowns happen as often as not, that would seem like a setup anybody might desire. I know I did.

Last week, as they drew entries for the Tampa Bay Derby, I told a few people of my potential plan.

When I looked at the past performances for the race, I saw one other potential speed horse, Make Me Zach. He had no chance to win but had shown much improved speed in his previous race. Still, there are horses that look fast in one race. And there are horses like War Pass that are fast in every race.

I wondered what might happen if Make Me Zach got to the lead, but not much. This was a weak field. War Pass figured to win easily. And I wanted War Pass to win very easily, by 10 lengths or more. Track record. The more dazzling, the better. Big headlines. Comparisons to Seattle Slew. Whatever it took.

I was in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City getting ready for the Atlantic 10 Conference basketball championship game when my phone rang. It was my friend saying something I could not understand. He was very excited about something. Then, I heard "War Pass'' followed by "last."

This was not the kind of headline I wanted or needed. He explained that War Pass had not made the lead and retreated to the back.

It was definitely not a performance like Smarty Jones's, when that colt was surrounded by four horses on the first turn of the Derby, bulled his way through, and ran down the speed in the stretch. When the 1-20 War Pass was surrounded on the first turn by 84-1 Gentleman James and 57-1 Make Me Zach, War Pass just backed out of there, showed no fight, and gave up.

My friend was not pleased that he might have been right about War Pass. I was even less pleased that my theory on lone speed had been borne out at the highest level. There was a time for that. It was the first Saturday in May, not the third Saturday in March.

Well, it was a nice betting theory. I just did not get the chance to test it.

Hey, it could have been worse. There was $717,212 out of a $765,884 show pool bet on War Pass.

It is, of course, possible that War Pass's defeat was a fluke. But I would definitely not bet on that.