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It's that time of year again. Time for the Happy Handicapper to send some money to Las Vegas as "future book" wagers on the Kentucky Derby.

Picking the winner of America's biggest race three months in advance is no easy task, even for a guy who spent much of the week in his basement laboratory studying the 3-year-olds.

After more than a few years of Derby handicapping, he has concluded most Derby winners are horses who have flashed signs in their 2-year-old seasons that they were something extraordinary.

One major way a horse flashes that he is special is to run a race in a super-fast time -- not just the 12-seconds-per-furlong indications of "ordinary" quickness (1:18, 1:24, 1:36 and 1:42 for 6 1/2 , 7, 8 and 8 1/2 furlongs, respectively), but several ticks faster.

For example: As 2-year-olds, Charismatic (the 1999 Derby winner) ran 6 1/2 furlongs in an eye-popping 1:16 2/5 . Silver Charm (1997) won at 7 furlongs in 1:22 4/5 . Go For Gin (1994) won at a mile in 1:35 2/5 . Sea Hero (1993) won at a mile in 1:34 4/5 . Thunder Gulch (1995) won at 1 1/1 6 miles in 1:41 4/5 and Real Quiet (1998) won at the same distance in 1:41 1/5 .

The other thing the H.H. has noticed is that many of the Derby winners of the 1990s gave notice of their superior ability when they "broke their maidens" (won for the first time) in races where they demolished their opposition, winning by five lengths or more. Unbridled (1990) got his first win by 10 1/2 lengths; Strike the Gold (1991) by 8 1/2 ; Lil E. Tee (1992) by 11 1/2 ; Go For Gin (1994) by 10 1/2 and Grindstone (1996) by 5.

With these criteria in mind, the H.H. got out his magnifying glass and old Daily Racing Forms and started digging.

First, he came up with some very obvious candidates.

There's Captain Steve, a Bob Baffert trainee who broke his maiden by seven lengths and also ran 7 furlongs in 1:23 1/5 . And High Yield, a D. Wayne Lukas trainee who won Saratoga's Hopeful (7 furlongs in 1:22 4/5 ) after breaking his maiden by 8 3/4 lengths. And Mighty, the Frank Brothers colt who won at a mile in 1:35 4/5 after getting 7 furlongs in 1:23 3/5 .

But obvious is not what you're looking for in a future book bet. This is where you want to get huge odds that, if you win, you can brag about forever.

Here are five long shots the Handicapper has under consideration.

GIBSON COUNTY: Baffert's colt won the 7-furlong California Breeders Championship on Dec. 30 in 1:22 3/5 .

This son of In Excess has won his last three races but looks, on paper, like he might not be able to stretch out to 1 1/4 -miles.

In the above-mentioned race, he opened a two-length lead at the top of the stretch and almost got caught at the wire by stablemate Stormy Jack. But you never know with these Baffert horses.

HUGH HEFNER: Playboy-founder namesake won the 7-furlong California Sires Stakes on Oct. 2 in 1:21 3/5 to earn a ticket to the $1 million Breeders Cup Juvenile, where he finished 13th, to the disappointment of the human Hefner and his accompanying bevy of beauties.

After two months off, the colt resumed training under Martin Jones on New Year's Eve at Hollywood Park. His latest published workout was a bullet (fastest of the day for the distance) half-mile in 48 2/5 on Jan. 5. Don't give up on this one quite yet.

SAINTS CUP: This son of Saint Ballado scored his first win at Saratoga by 9 3/4 lengths on Aug. 28 and then disappeared from the entry and workout lists.

According to Bloodstock Research Information Services, he was purchased at auction for $850,000 by Peter J. Callahan and Barry Golden. They later sued to have the sale voided because they claimed trainer Stanley Hough and the previous owners, Robert and Bea Roberts, were aware of the fact that the colt had a "core lesion of the main flexor tendon" in his left front leg at the time of the sale, and that the injury will prevent him from racing.

Their lawsuit claims Hough "specifically and affirmatively denied any tendon problem" when trainer Bill Badgett inquired about the layoff. The original owners have counter-sued. If you like to throw the dice, you might get a monster price on this one, if he ever gets to the races again.

STORMY JACK: Another Baffert trainee that broke his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths at Del Mar, then finished second in two 7-furlong races where was clocked in 1:22 2/5 and 1:22 3/5 . He finished a fast-closing neck behind stablemate Gibson County in that California Breeders Championship.

He's had two works since then -- 5 furlongs in 1:01 2/5 and 6 furlongs in 1:13 2/5 . His "dosage" rating indicates that he should be a pure sprinter, but that's what might fetch a nice price this time of year.

TWILIGHT TIME: Trained by Linda Rice, this one broke his maiden at Belmont Park by 10 lengths and then won the 6 1/2 -furlong Cowdin Stakes in 1:17 Oct. 16. He raced three times since then and finished his freshman campaign with a 3-1-1 mark in eight starts. He's been working consistently at the Belmont Park training track. While his record says he's a sprinter, his pedigree (by Twilight Agenda out of a Deputy Minister mare) says he wants to go long.

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