03/21/2005 12:00AM

Weekend preps blur Derby picture


NEW YORK - There were a few "wow" performances in Saturday's four major Kentucky Derby prep races around the country. But not all of them made you go "wow" in a positive way, and none of them did what you would hope for with the first leg of the Triple Crown now only six weeks from Saturday, which is to instill some order and logic into the Derby picture. In fact, right now, the May 7 Kentucky Derby looks as wide open as ever.

Certainly, the most impressive performance from a positive standpoint by a Derby candidate Saturday was the one by Consolidator. He faced the strongest and deepest field assembled for a Kentucky Derby prep this year in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and made a shambles of it. Consolidator contested an honest pace, and still ran away in the stretch to rack up a 6 1/2-length score.

San Felipe runner-up Giacomo is a steady sort, and pretty much ran his race, as did third-place finisher Don't Get Mad, but they couldn't get within hailing distance of Consolidator. On the basis of speed figures, Wilko, who came out of the race with a quarter crack, ran only marginally below the form that enabled him to pull an upset in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and finish third in the Hollywood Futurity. He could do no better than finish a distant fourth in the San Felipe.

The trouble, if you will, with Consolidator's San Felipe was that his effort was so out of character from the first eight races he ran that it makes you wonder where in the world it came from. The only other stakes race Consolidator won was the Breeders' Futurity last fall at Keeneland, and that was a skeptic's delight. The pace was slow, and Consolidator was right on it over a notoriously speed-favoring track.

The 104 Beyer Speed Figure that Consolidator earned in the San Felipe is something you would want to see at this stage, because horses who can't run fast rarely win the Kentucky Derby. But that 104 bettered Consolidator's previous best Beyer by 10 full points, and on the basis of Beyers, it roughly represented a 10-length improvement over his fourth in the San Vicente in his first start this year.

And perhaps another reason for reservation is Consolidator did what he did Saturday over a Santa Anita main track that some feel was favoring horses with his on-the-pace running style.

Consolidator may have suddenly found himself, as 3-year-olds often do this time of year. But his San Felipe stands in such stark contrast to his previous races that the burden is on him to prove it.

The other particularly positive impression from a Derby prospect Saturday was provided by Rockport Harbor, despite the fact that his half-length loss to Greater Good in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park marked the first defeat of his career.

Rockport Harbor was in a bad spot immediately out of the gate when he stumbled and then was squeezed between opponents. That meant Rockport Harbor had to work harder to get an early lead, which looked on paper to be his, easily. He made a big rush three wide into the first turn and then quickly sprinted clear, and almost seemed on the verge of running off under Stewart Elliott through a second quarter run in a too-fast 23.25 seconds.

Given this, plus the well-documented physical problems he had to overcome to make it back to the races in time for any semblance of a pre-Derby campaign, it was to Rockport Harbor's credit that he was as close as he was. Still, it would be easier to feel better about Rockport Harbor's Rebel if he made his big rush into an opening quarter run faster than a slow 24 seconds. And Greater Good's race-winning Beyer was only a 95.

There were also some efforts Saturday that made you think, "Wow, what in the heck was that?"

Roman Ruler, a well-backed 18-1 in the first two pools of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, turned in one of those puzzling efforts with a dismal eighth in the San Felipe, and ran himself right out of the Derby picture. Aqueduct's Gotham Stakes, won by Survivalist, also fell into this category, because you have to seriously question the strength of any race in which an unheralded sort horse like Pavo is defeated by less than a length after his saddle slipped and his jockey was out of his irons for the last half-mile, and the winner gets a Beyer of only 90.

Even Sun King's Tampa Bay Derby win belongs here, because, at 1-20, he had to work to win by a little more than three lengths. And even after his hard work, all he got was a 91 Beyer, which represented a troubling 13-point drop from what he got in his first start of the year.

But the "winner" of this category was Afleet Alex, who, as the 3-5 favorite in the Rebel, stopped in the stretch like he ran into a cement wall, and was beaten 12 1/2 lengths. It was discovered he had a lung infection. But lung infection or not, this was an alarming performance, shocking for a colt who was the lukewarm future book Derby favorite.

An open Kentucky Derby? You bet it is. And if it were run in two weeks, the favorite might be 8-1.