The calendar suggests spectators are in for an historically significant Kentucky Derby today, and the field of 16 certainly provides the necessary raw material.

Derbies run in years ending in "1" have tended to be big ones. Fifty years ago, Whirlaway began his sweep of the Triple Crown with an 8-length Derby triumph.Ten years later, Count Turf completed an unusual triple: His granddad Reigh Count took the roses in 1928 and his father, Count Fleet, won in 1943.

In 1961, the winner was popular Carry Back - "the people's horse," and a decade later, Canonero II, a no-name from Venezuela, gave South America its first Derby winner.

This year's Derby offers a number of intriguing possibilities.

At 5-2 overnight odds, Fly So Free is trying to become the first 2-year-old champion and Derby favorite to win the roses since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

Best Pal, the 7-2 third choice, is trying to become the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 as well as the first California-bred victor since Needles in 1956.

Strike the Gold, the 4-1 fourth choice, is trying to shatter the controversial "dosage system," a pedigree-based analysis used to predict who has no shot of winning the Derby. The "dosage system" has never been wrong in applications stretching all the way back to 1929, but a lot of folks think this big handsome son of the late great Alydar has a heckuva chance. Another Alydar colt, 20-1 Alydavid, also is seeking to rattle the dosage disciples.

Alydavid, who didn't make his first start until Feb. 18, also is trying to become the first horse to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. So is the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Corporate Report, a 12-1 mid-shot who made his maiden start March 3.

Forty Something, a member of the 20-1 mutuel field, could make Andrea Seefeldt the first female jockey to win the Derby. She's only the third to try.

And then there is Sea Cadet's fun bid for a quirky asterisk in the Derby history book: The 10-1 fifth choice is trying to become the first tail-less wonder - well, actually he's got a stub of a bobtail - to win the Roses.

Why not? To many, the 117th edition looks like anybody's Derby."This is a wide-open Derby," said Phil Gleaves, trainer of the 50-1 outsider, Happy Jazz Band. "Any of a dozen could win - maybe more. The Big Four all have chinks in their armor."

The Big Four are Fly So Free, the favorite by virtue of his 1990 title and his consistency; 3-1 second choice Hansel, the "hot horse" coming off two easy stakes triumphs; Best Pal, the runner-up to Fly So Free in the 2-year-old championship balloting, and Strike the Gold, who broke Fly So Free's string of five stakes triumphs with an upset in the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes.

But, as Gleaves said, there are questions about each of them. Fly So Free was under suspicion for lollygagging on the lead in races before his Blue Grass loss; Hansel raced poorly early in the year; Best Pal is 0-for-2 this year though the losses were mere half-length defeats, and Strike the Gold has both the dosage question and a dearth of stakes experience to deal with.

"This is not a four-horse race by any means," said 1987 Derby winner Chris McCarron, who will ride Sea Cadet. "When you get 16 horses going into the gate, it comes down to a horse needing a lot of luck. Sometimes, you can have bad luck in the Kentucky Derby and still get there, but you have to be very much the best."

McCarron, like most people, sees no one in this field that much the best.

"The bottom line is it's a wide-open race, and I don't fear anyone," he said.

Obviously, a lot of people feel that way. That's the only way to explain the presence of Forty Something, who has run in just one stake race and placed fourth. Paulrus' best qualification is a first-place finish (followed by a disqualification for interference) in a 11/2-mile grass race, which means he's the only starter who's proved he can go the 11/4-mile Derby distance, albeit at a lower class. Wilder Than Ever's chief claim to fame is a third-place finish, 81/2 lengths behind Hansel, in the Jim Beam Stakes. Another Review was third in the Gotham Stakes, but beaten 15 lengths last time out in the Wood Memorial.

And there are others with what appear to be pipedreams. Like Gleaves' Happy Jazz Band, who was last in the Preview Stakes and third, but beaten 9 lengths, in the Wood. Or talented but inexperienced Alydavid, who is rushing into the Derby off a victory his first and only stakes start, the Derby Trial, just one week ago. Or Corporate Report, the Arkansas Derby runner-up who was limping around on a bruised left heel just six days ago.

The others who are trying to claim the $655,800 winner's share of a record $905,800 purse include Mane Minister, Quintana, Lost Mountain and Green Alligator.

"They're all gonna take a shot, and rightfully so," Gleaves said. "Any 3-year-old with a modicum of talent should be running in this Derby."

The trainers of the Big Four aren't particularly insulted by this lack of respect. They all have conceded that there is no one standout but each is confident his horse is as ready as possible.

"I know my horse is coming up to the race as good as he can. That's all you can hope for. The rest is destiny," said Strike the Gold's Nick Zito.

Meteorologists predicted there was a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms affecting the Derby. Post time is set for 3:32 p.m. MDT, with national TV coverage by ABC.


(Additional information)

The Run for The Roses

Facts about the Churchill Downs track in Louisville, Kentucky

The 117th Kentucky Derby

Main track

Track: Oval, 1 mile around

Soil: Sandy loam

Width: At Derby start, 120 ft.

Backstretch, 79 ft.

Finish, 80 ft.

Seating Capacity: 51,500 total for grandstand, bleachers and clubhouse and terraces

Parking: 4,000 cars

Stables: 1,404 stalls

Kentucky Derby: 1 1/4 miles

Horses travel 1 1/4 times around the track

Sketch not to scale

Source: Churchill Downs\