02/26/2004 1:00AM

What's so bad about running fast?


LAS VEGAS - It has been 25 years since a 2-year-old champion won the Kentucky Derby, and no Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has ever won the roses. These long stretches of disappointment have not only driven otherwise rational racetrackers to embrace voodoo with talk of a jinx or a hex, but also seem to have changed the way that they evaluate the prep races on the road to Louisville.

Everyone fears and expects the worst and logic is turned upside down. Fast is bad, slow is good, brilliance is a red flag, and mediocrity is desirable.

Two Saturdays ago at Gulfstream, Birdstone and Read the Footnotes made their 3-year-old debuts at Gulfstream in separate races. The two colts were already on anyone's top 10 list of Derby prospects and their trainers expected them to run well without being fully cranked for a peak effort. Each faced a challenge. Birdstone had not been out since winning the Champagne and was making his first start around two turns. Read the Footnotes, off since winning the Remsen, was returning against a good Fountain of Youth field that included the fast and sharp Second of June.

Both triumphed, but turned in extremely different performances. Birdstone produced a very modest effort, toying with a weak field to win in moderate time that earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 93. Read the Footnotes won an epic stretch battle with Second of June in a brilliantly fast race, earning a Beyer of 113 that ranks as one of the fastest Derby preps of the last 20 years.

Yet in the parimutuel Derby futures betting that closed the next afternoon, and on the future book boards in Vegas since, Birdstone and Read the Footnotes are about the same price in the 12-1 to 15-1 range, to win the Derby. Andrew Beyer himself wrote that his early Derby exacta is Birdstone over Read the Footnotes in that order, 20-point difference be damned. And instead of Read the Footnotes being considered a clear divisional leader with a towering advantage over his contemporaries, the general consensus seems to be that he ran his Derby in February, is cooked for the foreseeable future, and has no better chance of proving best in Louisville than contemporaries who routinely run significantly slower.

Just because Read the Footnotes ran a 113 in February doesn't mean he's a heavy favorite to win the Derby. Three-year-olds are erratic, and the 10th furlong of the Derby is always a voyage into the unknown. Still, he's a lot better than 15-1 and his Fountain of Youth performance means something in an absolute sense beyond just being faster than the rest of the crop right now. By December, only a handful of 3-year-olds will have run that fast all year. That 113 is faster than the average winning Beyer for a Triple Crown race. His 105 winning the Remsen was the fastest graded stakes victory by a 2-year-old last year, and his Fountain of Youth may well be the best Derby prep that will be run this year.

There's no mystery here. He's a very fast colt, one of the best of his generation already. If he had a fancier pedigree and connections, we'd be hearing about a massive syndication and an abbreviated racing career. Since he's a New York-bred by Smoke Glacken, people seem to think he's doing it with mirrors.

These days, everyone's a smart-aleck and a pessimist, assuming that what we've seen is an illusion and that the truth lies hidden somewhere else. Instead of taking the obviously fast horse, Derby students are struggling to find redeeming qualities in mediocre efforts and scouring routine allowance races for horses who, if they improved 10 or 15 lengths, might be peaking in May.

Action This Day has yet to crack the triple-digit Beyer plateau but has as many admirers as Read the Footnotes. The theory is that even though he has yet to run a fast race, he has license to improve with distance and experience since he won the Juvenile in only his third career start and closed well into a dead pace in his season debut. Gradepoint has a cult following despite fairly slow performances because he's improving ever so gradually and has a long-winded pedigree.

They're eligible to improve, as early 3-year-olds always are, but they still have to do it. By Derby Day, history suggests, two or three colts will have gotten to the 110 Beyer level, and they will probably be the right ones. Last year's only Derby contenders on that plane were Empire Maker, Funny Cide, and Ten Most Wanted. Read the Footnotes is already there.

None of this is a knock on Birdstone, whose Saratoga debut last August remains his most brilliant effort and is the foundation for a leap forward between now and May 1. A colt who can run a 99 Beyer in August of his 2-year-old year is something special and eligible to be anything. Still, 20 points is a lot of ground to make up, and the Derby is just 63 days away. As Damon Runyon once said, the race does not always go to the swift - but that's the way to bet it.