02/05/2008 1:00AM

Whirlaway nearly off the Derby map

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"We're getting to the point where you separate the ones that are real from the ones that are not real, and the ones that are not real are going to fall off the path."

- Steve Klesaris, the trainer of Roman Emperor, a contender in Saturday's Whirlaway Stakes


At T-minus three months and counting to the Kentucky Derby, history says it has been 15 years since the last time a Whirlaway winner, the ill-fated Prairie Bayou, went on to do anything anyone remembers.

Back in 1993, when the Beyer Speed Figures were still something of a novelty to a lot of horseplayers, Prairie Bayou received a 99 for his three-length score in the Whirlaway, and followed with wins in the Jim Beam (98) and Blue Grass (96). In a slow crop of 3-year-olds, that was enough to send him postward as the lukewarm 4.40-1 favorite in a 19-horse Derby field; he ran second to the on-again off-again Sea Hero, and earned a figure of 101 that marked his only visit to the land of triple digits. Two weeks later, he won a slow Preakness with a 98, and three weeks after that he tragically broke down on the backstretch in the Belmont Stakes.

Some might say the Whirlaway is cursed. Going back to the turn of the millennium, Whirlaway winners have either succumbed to injury or free-fallen into obscurity. The roll call:

Country Only (2000): Three years later, he was good enough to win a $50,000 claimer on Aqueduct's inner dirt at the age of 6. He was winless in six starts the following year, and ended his career finishing last of 10 for a $5,000 tag at Charles Town.

Regal Shivers (2001): He managed to win 2 of 15 starts during the next two years - a $10,000 claimer at Mountaineer Park at 4, and a $5,000 claimer at Turfway at 5.

Saratoga Blues (2002): As a 5-year-old, he was off the board in all five of his starts, beaten a combined 111 lengths in $3,500 starter allowance races on the West Virginia circuit.

Boston Park (2003): He managed to win one of seven post-Whirlaway starts, taking a third-level allowance on a sloppy inner track the following winter at 29-1. Five of his six losses were by 12 lengths or more. His last race was as a March 4-year-old.

Little Matth Man (2004): He apparently angered the spelling gods, because he was winless in 14 starts during 2006-07, including a 15-length beating against basement $7,500 claimers at Aqueduct, and a 17-length thrashing for $3,500 at Penn National.

Sort It Out (2005): In a well-timed move, his connections sold a major interest immediately after his Whirlaway win. The New York-bred never won again. Given over to Bob Baffert, he was trounced in the Louisiana Derby in his next start, and lost 11 more times before being retired.

Achilles of Troy (2006): Looked like the second coming of Unbridled's Song after winning the Count Fleet by 14 lengths to earn a Beyer of 105, and the Whirlaway by nearly five lengths with a 104. A month later, however, he was vanned off the track after running fifth as the 3-2 favorite in the Gotham, and never ran again.

Summer Doldrums (2007): His stakes-record time of 1:42.23 for the 1 1/16-mile Whirlaway initially received a figure of 106, which soon afterward was adjusted down to a 94. Though he ran third in the Gotham at even money next time out, his win in the Grade 3 Colonial Turf Cup in June makes him the most accomplished Whirlaway winner of recent times.

And so Roman Emperor, third as the favorite in the Count Fleet Stakes four weeks ago, will attempt to rebound in the Whirlaway. He has about three lengths to make up on Count Fleet runner-up Spanky Fischbein, but that seems within his scope considering a slow-but-sure development line on the numbers, and a favorable flip-flop in post positions.

There are several other contenders in a small but competitive field. Apple Special comes off a breakthrough performance to win the Maryland Juvenile in his final start at 2. Cave's Valley beat Atoned twice at Delaware Park in minor stakes last fall, and Atoned was then beaten just a neck in the Grade 2 Remsen. Barrier Reef was a $350,000 in-training purchase last March, then was wide throughout the Count Fleet - just his third career start - and he remains a diamond in the rough. If you like Roman Emperor off his allowance win at Philadelphia Park over Primal Impact in early December, well, then you have to like Texas Wildcatter, too, because he hammered that same opponent three weeks later.

The Whirlaway winner's name will be on a lot of lips and will probably even crack some early "Kentucky Derby Watch" lists. How he will ultimately wind up is anyone's guess.