Updated on 09/16/2011 7:18AM

This year, sheikh's strategy can pay

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Since he began his quest to win the Kentucky Derby, Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum has sent woefully unprepared horses to Churchill Downs. One of them had raced only twice in his life. One had never raced beyond seven-eighths of a mile. One hadn't competed as a 3-year-old. None had the benefit of a prep race in America.

All of these colts were soundly trounced in the Derby, and so most handicappers will logically disregard Essence of Dubai, who carries the famous blue silks of the sheikh's Godolphin Stable in Saturday's race. Yet I am going to bet this stretch-runner at 15-1 or thereabouts because, oddly enough, he may be better prepared for the Derby than his key rivals.

This is a year in which to look for an upset because all of the leading contenders look so vulnerable. The negatives outweigh the positives on almost every horse.

Harlan's Holiday, the morning-line favorite, is admirably consistent and versatile, but he has been winning stakes in slow time against weak competition. Came Home, the California speedster, has shown no indication that he can negotiate the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles; he was pitifully slow winning the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. Johannesburg, who won the Breeders' Cup last year with the aid of a perfect trip, has had insufficient preparation this year and probably can't go 1 1/4 miles, either. Saarland will handle the distance, but he is a plodding bum.

The only two horses to deliver outstanding performances in major U.S. prep races are Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, who battled each other to the wire in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. Both are talented and precocious. Medaglia d'Oro defeated a tough stakes field at Santa Anita in only the third start of his career before losing a photo finish in the Wood. Buddha had won an allowance race in dazzling fashion before making his stakes debut in the Wood.

Despite their lack of seasoning, the two colts recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 105 at Aqueduct, better than any race of Harlan's Holiday's career. (The only Derby entrant with a better performance at 1 1/8 miles is War Emblem, who earned a 112 with an unchallenged early lead at speed-favoring Sportsman's Park, favorable circumstances that he won't enjoy Saturday.)

Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro are the best horses in the Derby. Both should be able to stalk the early leaders, get a good trip, and handle the Derby distance. Both should offer betting value, at odds of 6-1 or so. But both have a potentially fatal weakness: their lack of experience. A horse lacking a solid foundation of

2-year-old experience rarely wins the Derby. A horse with only four career starts hasn't won since 1918. Such neophytes often run poorly when they are subjected to the intense pressure of the Derby. Medaglia d'Oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, acknowledges this: "Maybe he's that good that he can take it. We don't find out till after the race."

Essence of Dubai seems better prepared than Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, although the Sheikh Mohammed's master plan for winning the Derby is fundamentally ill-conceived. He selects the 2-year-olds in his huge operation who seem suited to dirt racing, sends them to California to race during the summer and fall, brings them back to Dubai during the winter, and returns them to the United States in time for the Derby. It would make a lot more sense just to leave them in this country, but multibillionaires like to do things their own way.

Last fall Essence of Dubai defeated a moderate field in the Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita before getting trounced in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It wasn't a brilliant 2-year-old campaign, but at least he had gained some of the experience that is important in the Derby - experience lacked by the Godolphin color-bearers of the past.

This regally bred colt won both of his starts in Dubai this winter; he came from far behind to win the $2 million United Emirates Derby at 1 1/4 miles. Even Tom Albertrani, his assistant trainer, questioned the quality of the field; most of the runners were the sheikh's lesser 3-year-olds. But the horse who finished second was a U.S. invader who had run twice in California, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 in each start. Based on his record, plus a comparison with the time of the Dubai World Cup run at 1 1/4 miles on the same card, I estimate Essence of Dubai's figure at 103. That level of performance surely makes him a bona fide contender in this Derby field.

I have annually derided the sheikh's attempts to win the Derby and vowed never to consider one of his horses until he proved that he can win this race. But as I look at the choices this year from the standpoint of speed figures, I would rather bet Essence of Dubai, who earned a 103 in a 1 1/4-mile race and has a solid foundation of experience, than his rivals with figures of 105 who might well regress.

My Derby picks: 1. Essence of Dubai. 2. Buddha. 3. Medaglia d'Oro. I will bet Essence of Dubai to win and box the three horses in the exacta. If I am wrong, I vow never to bet another of the sheikh's horses at Churchill, and this time I'll mean it.

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