Derby fever in vogue with bumper 3-year-old crop

Feb 8, 2005 12:41 PM

Gary Stevens is as qualified as anyone when it comes to spotting a nice 3-year-old.

The Hall of Fame jockey has won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice and the Belmont Stakes three times. Twice he missed winning the Triple Crown, taking the Derby and Preakness on Silver Charm in 1997, and the Preakness and the Belmont aboard Point Given in 2001.

Stevens, who turns 42 on March 6, is still jockeying for position for this year’s Derby horse. At the moment he has his choice of a handful of prospects, one of which is the speedy Spanish Chestnut, next to be seen at Santa Anita in the Santa Catalina Stakes on March 5. Another is El Roblar, who defeated the touted Canteen when the pair met in their first starts.

But they must make a quantum leap to reach the lofty level of the undefeated Eclipse Award winner Declan’s Moon, who stands as the best in the West and perhaps the best in the nation. He had a serious challenger in Fusaichi Samurai until Friday, when that heralded $4.5 million colt was taken off the Triple Crown trail. Neil Drysdale, the Hall of Fame trainer who conditions Fusaichi Samurai, said the son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus pulled a muscle in his left hind area after a workout on Jan. 21. After breaking his maiden in sensational style last Dec. 11, Fusaichi Samurai had his jockey Victor Espinoza, dismount and declare he was "the best horse ever." Now, perhaps we’ll never know. At least we’ll have to wait.

Meanwhile, life goes on. In addition to Declan’s Moon, there’s the undefeated Rockport Harbor, attempting to become the second coming of Smarty Jones for trainer John Servis; the unbeaten Florida-bred, Lost in the Fog, winner of his three starts by an average of nearly nine lengths; and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Wilko, Afleet Alex, Galloping Grocer, Hutcheson Stakes winner Proud Accolade and the late-starting Roman Ruler. Not to be overlooked is Sweet Catomine, the Eclipse Award winner as champion 2-year-old filly of 2004. She could take on the boys if she fares well in the Santa Anita Oaks on March 13. Right now, she’s good enough.

Stevens, understandably, maintains it’s far too early to go completely ga-ga over this year’s 3-year-olds.

"We’ll know in 10 years how good they were," he said. "That’s what I say every year, although I have to say it’s a pretty exceptional crop. There are several new stallions that are showing their worth. War Chant is one (he’s the sire of El Roblar) and Fusaichi Pegasus is another, and that’s not even mentioning the proven sires. I’ve got four 3-year-olds I’m riding that I’m really excited about, and more to come, I think, so it’s going to be a good bunch."

Of course, it’s still only February, three months from the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Rainfall that measured nearly 20 inches the first two weeks of the Santa Anita meet, an unprecedented amount during that span in the track’s 68-year history, dramatically altered training schedules. Horses stood virtually idle and trainers were forced to adjust. Many are still recovering.

"That kind of weather doesn’t help when you’re trying to get ready for the Derby," Stevens said. "I’ve said in the past that when training gets screwed up this early in the year it can have an affect on the first Saturday in May. But the thing is, with the weather in California, everybody’s kind of playing by the same rules. The ones that were brave and worked on the training track during the bad weather, they’re the ones who will come to the forefront."

This year’s 3-year-olds rate high with Ron Ellis, who trains Declan’s Moon. "I think they’re a great crop of horses," he said. "They’re running fast and have huge numbers. How far they’ll want to go is hard to tell but I think they’re all at least middle-distance horses anyway."

D. Wayne Lukas, who knows his way around the Triple Crown trail as well as anyone, cautions it’s too soon to go overboard. "I think it’s a little too early," said Lukas, whose top prospects are Consolidator, a candidate for the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes next Sunday, and Going Wild, who carried his speed to win the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes. "There will be a lot of sorting out between now and April 1," Lukas noted.

That said and everything else being equal, at the moment give me Declan’s Moon. But I reserve the right to change my mind.

THE HOMESTRETCH:

Declan’s Moon is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Santa Catalina. He should get an ideal stalking trip if speedballs Going Wild and Spanish Chestnut run.

”¡ Bob Baffert hopes to have Roman Ruler ready for his 3-year-old debut in Sunday’s San Vicente.

”¡ Roger Stein is recuperating from amputation of part of his left foot. "I had an infection that got to the bone and they had to amputate," the 51-year-old trainer said. "I hope to be back within two weeks but I may need a cane for balance."

”¡ Handicapper Bruce Finklestein of Jason Levine’s "Inside Racing" radio show (570 XTRA Sports, weekends, 8 a.m. to 9) will host a seminar at the Hard Rock Race and Sports book on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.