03/02/2009 5:25PM

Early Quality

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A year ago, the question two months (or even a week) before the Kentucky Derby was whether there was much real talent among the 3-year-old males, and it turned out to be the right question: Besides Big Brown, there just wasn't much. Imagine the 2008 Triple Crown without him.

This year there's talent aplenty out there. We've already had three Derby preps at a mile or more earn triple-digit Beyers, something that didn't happen last year until Big Brown's Florida Derby, and this past weekend's Fountain of Youth and Sham Stakes both featured fast and dominant victories by colts of obvious high quality. The races came up 15 and 17 Beyer points higher than last year's editions. Historical comparisons aren't ideal, since the Fountain of Youth was cut back to a one-turn mile this year and the Sham has only been run nine times, the last two on synthetic tracks, but these were two of the fastest performances in the recent history of both races:

The Fountain of Youth was a weird race beyond the winner's clearly excellent performance. The fractions, if correct, were really strange: A first quarter in 23.84, followed by a second quarter in 21.72. All the first quarters in one-mile races at Gulfstream are slow, due to a very short run-up that makes it practically a standing start, but this one was still tepid given the apparent abundance of early speed in the race. Little of that speed materialized, however, and quick horses such as Notonthesamepage, Taqarub and This One's For Phil barely showed up, completely failing to stretch out beyond six furlongs.

Quality Road showed he was something special winning his debut in a sparkling performance that earned an extraordinary debut Beyer of 101 last Nov. 29. His stock went down after he lost his second start (done in by an early duel, possibly a dead rail, and by whatever made him come out of the race with a cough), but he rebounded strongly on Saturday. The gaudy 113 Beyer looks completely legit -- the track was consistent throughout the day, there were no split variants, the other one-mile race on the card was more than three full seconds slower, and the day's five other dirt races earned fittingly modest figures of between 67 and 89.

Same deal at Santa Anita, where The Pamplemousse got a 103 on a straightforward day for the figs, making it one of the highest Derby-prep figures in the brief history of synthetic racetracks. He was the only stakes-winner in the field and there wasn't much behind him, but he set honest fractions and kept on cruising, getting the nine furlongs in a fine 1:47.86.

So the question this year is a more traditional one 60 days from the Derby: We've clearly got some nice colts, but how far will they go? Quality Road struck his handlers so clearly as a sprinter/miler that they didn't even nominate to the Triple Crown, though of course they will now supplement him. When he makes his next start, in either the Florida Derby March 28 or the Wood a week later, he'll be trying two turns and nine furlongs for the first time in just his fourth career start. The Pamplemousse has passed both of those tests but not against good horses.

There was another huge effort by a 3-year-old this weekend: Affirmatif's nine-length romp on the Gulfstream turf in his career debut. The Unbidled's Song-Wichitoz (Affirmed) colt actually ran a scoche faster (mile in 1:34.27 vs. 1:34.31) than his 5-year-old stablemate Twilight Meteor did winning the G3 Canadian Turf Stakes earlier on the card in his 17th career start. Both winners (both Pletcher trainees)  got a Beyer of 98, as high a career-debut-on-the-grass figure as I can remember ever seeing. It was certainly the most impressive grass debut by a young American horse since Big Brown got a 91 winning his first start, at Saratoga in 2007.