The talent pool of this year's crop of 3-year-olds runs deep, as witnessed over the last few weeks in major Kentucky Derby (gr. I) prep races. An armada of lesser crafts set out April 21 at Keeneland for the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) to test the waters one final time before the main event takes place at Churchill Downs in two weeks. Instead of a boat race, the majority of them found choppy seas and roiling water that all but grounded their Derby dreams on the rocks. Just the opening of the starting gate alone had several starters bailing instead of sailing. Keats, however, grabbed the early advantage, and skimmed through the 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland like going through a no wake zone. Left to his own devices on the lead, his skipper, Larry Melancon, settled the son of Hennessy and set a moderate tempo, leaving him plenty of wind in his sails to win the $371,475 Lexington by three-quarters of a length over Mr. John and jockey Corey Nakatani. Mr. John was reprimanded by the track's stewards for interference and was placed eighth. Favored Distilled was pulled up and did not finish. The Illinois Derby winner will not be pointed for the Kentucky Derby. It was an ironic victory for Henry E. Pabst's Keats. Four weeks earlier in the Spiral Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway, Keats figured to be a strong pace factor, but stumbled and was steadied at the break, leaving Balto Star free, clear, and eventually gone on the lead. In the Lexington, Keats and Melancon broke sharp while Distilled and Stable Secret took the worst of it in the race's opening strides. "It's a game of chance," said winning trainer Niall O'Callaghan. "In this race, Distilled got pinched back. It happened to us the other day. We got pinched and hammered. "I'm lucky he didn't break good in the Spiral, or we wouldn't have been here. If he had run well the first time, we still would have been beat a bunch by Balto Star and we would have run in the Derby Trial (gr. III). It's ironic, isn't it?" Griffinite, who held up the start of the Lafayette Stakes (gr. III) April 11 while being tough to load, went in the gate for the Lexington like a pro. The other nine entrants also loaded relatively smoothly. It was just when the doors opened that all hell broke loose. "It was an awfully rough run race," said Robby Albarado, who was aboard Global Gait and should have been clear from his outside No. 10 post. Mr. John took an immediate left from post nine soon after the start. "He took my space away," said Jerry Bailey, rider of Dogwood Stable's Distilled, who nearly clipped heels soon after the break. "Even after 40-50 yards, he didn't straighten up." Later, a the poor start and bad position, Bailey wrapped up on his mount and lodged an objection with the stewards. "He was so far back, I just pulled him up," he explained to Dogwood Stable's president Cot Campbell. "I think you did the right thing," Campbell said. "He bobbled a bit at the start," said Nakatani of Mr. John, and I had to get him back in his space." By the time the field had figured out what had happened at the start, Keats was long gone. He had a l 1/2-length advantage into the turn and down the backstretch while being stalked by Bonnie Scot and Mr. John. Bonnie Scot was racing back after a sixth-place effort in the previous week's Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). It was 1 1/2 lengths back to Camden Park and Griffinite after a half in :46.39. Distilled, who had hustled up to fourth position early, was putting on the breaks. Midway on the turn after six furlongs in 1:11.09, Bonnie Scot was still within striking distance on the rail, but suddenly pulled up in distress. The William Kelly homebred, who had won a pair of stakes at Turfway during the winter meet, suffered a bilateral fracture in his right front, along with suspensory damage, and was later euthanized. That left Mr. John with the only chance of catching Keats. "He ran his butt off," Nakatani said. "That horse had an easy lead and I was trying to get to him, but he had just enough to hold me off." Keats got the distance in 1:43.54. Griffinite, who had settled in midpack, rallied for third, but was 7 1/2 lengths back of Mr. John. The stewards awarded him second after the disqualification. Lazy Lane Farms' Bay Eagle rallied from eighth and was placed third, while Stable Secret, last early after getting squeezed on both sides at the start, finished a determined fifth before being moved up to fourth. The race has produced stars from its last two runnings. In 1999, Charismatic emerged from also-ran to win the Lexington, then took the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Last year, Unshaded came forward and later won the Travers (gr. I). In Keats, it's unclear whether he'll take the Derby path, or point to the Metropolitan Mile (gr. I) at Belmont Park. O'Callaghan was non-committal in the victory's afterglow. After splashing Melancon with bottled water in the winner's circle--"I'm going to do the 'Gatorade,' "--he said he'd leave the decision to the colt's 79-year-old owner, who watched the race on television from his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "I'll train him up to the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I)," said the Irish trainer who is as well known for his quick wit as his training ability. He turned serious, for just a moment, about his front-running Keats, the two-turn Lexington, and the Derby. "It's a different deal. When you hit the first wire at Keeneland, a horse that has speed might hang on. (Keeneland's 1 1/16-mile races finish at the sixteenth pole). You can go fast to the first wire at Keeneland and let him roll. I don't know what the plan would be for the Derby. Balto Star will be up there. "The Derby is a different step than I've ever done. I've usually trained endurance horses. Keats has a lot of speed." O'Callaghan apprenticed under trainer Tom Skiffington, which is where he met Pabst in 1988. He has trained horses for Pabst since '94. He purchased Keats privately last year, in another ironic twist, from Coolmore. "I bought him when they thought he'd be better suited for the dirt since he was by Hennessy. I bought him and Tijiyr (winner of the grade II Explosive Bid Handicap on turf March 25 in New Orleans) at the same time. Sometimes you get lucky and get the right horses at the right time." Before heading to the Directors' Room and a celebratory libation, O'Callaghan was still wearing a wide grin. "After a couple of glasses of champagne, who knows, it (the win) will be like a fishing story, 'Oh, he won by 15 lengths and is going to the Belmont.' " Wherever O'Callaghan goes fishing next, with Keats, he'll have plenty of bait.Continued. . . .