Apr 27, 2004 7:05 AM

"The Kentucky Derby’s the roughest-run race in the world," Hall of Fame Jockey Chris McCarron was recently quoted as saying, and this year’s 130th edition looks to be no exception.

Barring last minute defections, 20 of the year’s best three-year-olds will face the starter on Saturday afternoon and it will be "Katie bar the door" as the jockeys attempt to find the best placement for their mounts as the horses run down the long Churchill Downs stretch for the first time in the mile and one-quarter race.

By then, the estimated 135,000 fans in attendance, and the millions of watchers around the world, will have made their wagers, attempting to find a winner from the large group. And, that won’t be easy, to say the least.

In a recent telecast, a nationally prominent handicapper advised race fans: "Don’t take less than 6-1 on any horse in the Derby." That seems consistent with the early odds posted in Gaming Today by Mike Battaglia.

Determining the horse that will be the morning line favorite in the cavalry charge isn’t easy without knowing the results of Wednesday’s post-position selections. Placing speedballs such as Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, Pollard’s Vision and Quinton’s Gold Rush in various parts of the starting gate will probably dictate the early pace.

That pace, and the early bumping, will then determine the positions for the stalkers and the others whose moves into contention won’t be seen until the horses approach the last turn.

Also, a major unknown at this writing is track condition. Fans will surely remember the fuss made by Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey following the "sealing" of the track in anticipation of a rainstorm at Turfway Park prior to the running of the Lanes End Stakes. The track’s surface left 3-5 shot Birdstone on the rail with little hope of getting untracked.

If consensus can be believed (and it often cannot), early wagering should focus on Bluegrass winner The Cliff’s Edge, undefeated Smarty Jones who annexed the Arkansas Derby, and Wood winner Tapit.

Oddly, The Cliff’s Edge was ranked third among the powerful Nick Zito stable, behind Eurosilver (now out of action), and the previously mentioned Birdstone. However, the Bluegrass effort, and the fact that The Cliff’s Edge won a pair of stakes at Churchill Downs in his two-year-old campaign, has pushed him to the top of the list.

Smarty Jones, although undefeated, probably has as many knockers as followers. His breeder-owner, Someday Farm, is located in Pennsylvania. That hardly compares to the Bluegrass country of Kentucky. His trainer, John Servis, is making his first trip to Louisville, and his jockey, Elliot Stewart, is considered a "local jock" that is better-known on the smaller racing circuits.

And Smarty Jones’ breeding, by Elusive Quality our of a Smile mare, suggests he would be more successful at shorter distance and not the 10 furlongs of the Derby, while his early speed running style underscores that thought.

Supporters are quick to note, however, that within Smarty Jones’ breeding are strong suggestions that he can get the distance and the fact that he has continued to win even as his race distances have been lengthened support this thinking.

Tapit was the Derby hope of thoroughbred owner, breeder and long-time Las Vegas resident, Verne Mitchell, the "Donut King." He bought the colt for $625,000 with a vision of stakes victories but died before realizing his dream. The colt now races for Winchell Thoroughbreds.

Years ago, in 1971 in fact, Canonero II was said to have an unorthodox trainer in Venezuelan Juan Arias, who believed that the best way to train was to send his horses for long gallops rather than speed trials. Of course, Canonero II won both the Derby and the Preakness and was responsible for one of the largest crowds to attend a Belmont Stakes, only to fail in his attempt at the Triple Crown.

Now the industry is trying to understand the methods used by Tapit’s trainer, Michael Dickinson, whose mentor was the Irish legend Vincent O’Brien. Dickenson refuses to train his horses at a racetrack, preferring to keep them home at his farm in Maryland. And he varies the training over different surfaces and hilly courses.

Dickinson has had memorable successes in the past but this is his first effort with a Derby contender. And the results of his training were evident in the Wood with Tapit making a huge move down the backstretch from a trailing position and moving around the leaders to defeat both Master David and Eddington by a half-length.

The finish was important because both Master David and Eddington needed stakes earnings to make the Derby field. Master David’s nose won a berth while Eddington was left among the also eligibles.

The importance of the finish was underscored by jockey Bailey, who said he would abandon his mount on the highly-regarded Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon in favor of Eddington, if the latter somehow found his way to Louisville.

And there are a number of others given strong consideration. These include:

Action This Day, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who is trying to rewrite history by becoming the first such winner to win the Kentucky Derby;

Borrego, runner-up in his last three stakes attempts, will look to become the first horse to win the Derby without having won a prior stakes race;

Castledale, the Santa Anita Derby winner, who spent his youth racing on the grass in Ireland;

Friends Lake, the Florida Derby winner, who will not have a start in the two months preceding the Derby;

Imperialism, winner of both the San Vicente and St. Rafael Stakes in California, who will make his trainer, Kristin Mulhall, the youngest trainer ever to win the Derby;

Limehouse, the Tampa Derby victor, who will be handled by Jose Santos, the winning rider aboard Funny Cide last year;

Read the Footnotes, two-year-old sensation who won both the Nashua and Remsen Stakes in New York but failed badly in the Florida Derby as the odds-on choice; and

St. Averill, the hope of Stan Fulton, founder and former owner of Anchor Gaming, who now spends millions for horseflesh while running a racino in New Mexico.

In a recent article for the Daily Racing Form, Marty McGee called this year’s Derby a "delightful mess." Yet, as he notes, the racing fans love it.