May 7, 2002 8:34 AM

Who says money can’t buy happiness?

Certainly not Prince Ahmed bin Salman and his partners in The Thoroughbred Corp., who paid a reported $1 million for War Emblem and bought themselves a Kentucky Derby winner.

But money can’t seem to buy a ticket on the winner of the Derby, which year in and year out continues to be the world’s most difficult race to handicap. The Derby this year doomed handicappers from the outset, because their basic premise was completely wrong.

No one in the august "bible" of the sport, The Daily Racing Form, picked War Emblem to win. Nor did the twittering talking heads on NBC-TV and ESPN. Even celebrated figures guru Andy Beyer, inventor of his own system, contradicted himself. For winning the Illinois Derby, Beyer gave War Emblem a figure of 112, the highest number of all Derby participants. Yet Beyer picked Godolphin horse Essence of Dubai to win the Derby. Talk about going against the system! I got off the Godolphin bandwagon after Worldly Manner finished seventh in 1999. Only one DRF selector, Steve Crist, had War Emblem among his top four selections, and barely. He had him fourth. God bless him.

Everyone, myself included, anticipated a wicked pace in the mile and a quarter classic, one that would cook front-runners such as War Emblem, Proud Citizen and whatever other horses elected to contest the lead. No such speed duel unfolded.

The front runners moved slower than a traffic school clock.

Six furlong time for the Derby two years ago was a testing 1:09.99. Last year, it was a suicidal 1:09.25.

On Saturday, jockey Victor Espinoza and War Emblem dawdled through six furlongs in 1:11.75. The pace was so slow, even Eddie Delahoussaye, aboard expected closer Perfect Drift, sensed something was amiss and was up close in third, some two lengths off the leader. In fact, so many riders took back, that except for a bob of the head at the mile marker by Perfect Drift, the first three finishers didn’t change positions the entire race, War Emblem leading, Proud Citizen running second and Perfect Drift third from gate to wire.

Remarkably, it was the first Kentucky Derby in 87 years, since the filly Regret won in 1915, that the first three horses did not change positions throughout the race. I looked it up. The last wire-to-wire Derby winner was the filly Winning Colors in 1988.

Talk about boring.

HIGH 5’s ”” Jockey Victor Espinosa and War Emblem ruled.

What wasn’t boring was Espinoza’s first Derby win. The native of Mexico City, who turns 30 on May 23, has enjoyed a meteoric rise among racing’s elite riders. Five years ago, he was thrilled to win a riding title at Fairplex Park, a blue-collar bullring on the fair grounds of Pomona, a burg that is locked in a 1940’s time warp.

Two years ago, Espinoza put his name on the national map when he guided Spain to a $113.80 stunner in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. With his first Derby win, he has elevated himself to world-class status.

Bob Baffert, meanwhile, couldn’t be blamed for behaving like the cat that swallowed the canary. Raked by the media for entering 50-1 longshot Danthebluegrassman in the Derby at the 11th hour, costing Team Valor’s Windward Passage a spot in the race, Baffert otherwise maintained a pre-Derby low profile with War Emblem, who was purchased shortly after winning the Illinois Derby on April 6.

"We came in through the back door but we’re leaving through the front door," said Baffert after his third Derby victory. The 49-year-old trainer joined legends Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch as the only three-time Derby winners.

War Emblem, meanwhile, does not appear destined to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Chances are he will rank with Gato del Sol, Lil E. Tee, Sea Hero, Go For Gin, Grindstone, Charismatic and Monarchos as the most undistinguished Kentucky Derby winners of the last two decades.

But I’ve been wrong before. Haven’t we all?

THE HOMESTRETCH: Kent Desormeaux on the system that gives horses with the most graded stakes earnings priority to the Derby, a proviso that prevented Desormeaux’s mount, U S S Tinosa, from qualifying for the Derby: "It’s not something that I’ve dwelled upon, so therefore I’ll leave it to those who do nothing but wonder what’s the best route." . . . Mizzen Mast, the top handicap horse in the country prior to the Santa Anita Handicap in March, will soon be jogging as he prepares for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 26.













*did not race in Derby.