02/17/2004 12:00AM

Auditions for Derby cast

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LAS VEGAS - The 3-year-olds were out in force last weekend, especially at Gulfstream Park, where nine of the 12 races on Saturday showcased 3-year-olds, including the Fountain of Youth and Hutcheson stakes. Some observations on the chances of these horses for the Kentucky Derby:

Birdstone (by Grindstone) made a triumphant return since his Champagne Stakes victory last October, winning an allowance at one mile and 70 yards. While it is never easy for a horse to make his 3-year-old debut around two turns after a four-month layoff, it must be noted that Birdstone's five opponents were hopelessly overmatched. Nevertheless, Birdstone put on a good show, and the race did exactly what it was intended to do: move Birdstone forward to his next Kentucky Derby prep. Although Grindstone won the Kentucky Derby in an abbreviated career dotted by unsoundness, he has proven to be a speed influence, and his runners have primarily shown their best up to 1 1/8 miles. Unquestionably Birdstone is a colt of quality, but his Derby chances hinge on how well he fares at 1 1/8 miles.

In only his second lifetime start, Intimidator (Gone West) won a maiden race at 1 1/8 miles, and he gets strong stamina points from his dam's sire, Pleasant Colony, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In fact, his dam is a full sister to the ill-fated Pleasant Stage, 2-year-old champion filly who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. It may be asking too much, however, for a colt by Gone West who just won his maiden on Feb. 14 to win at 1 1/4 miles on May 1.

Value Plus looked very much like his sire, Unbridled's Song, both in appearance and in performance, winning a seven-furlong allowance in a dazzling display of speed. Value Plus could be this year's top 3-year-old sprinter/miler (and a great candidate for the Metropolitan Mile), but he is not Kentucky Derby material.

It was quite a surprise to see Swingforthefences, a son of 2-year-old champion Boston Harbor (by yet another 2-year-old champion and speed influence, Capote) win Gulfstream's ninth race, which was at 1 1/8 miles. While Shaniko (A.P. Indy) was expected to put in that kind of performance at the distance, he could only finish a distant second to Swingforthefences, who displayed eye-catching acceleration in the stretch to win by daylight. Swingforthefences' dam is very closely related to stakes winner Discover, and Swingforthefences' third dam is a half-sister to 1975's champion 3-year-old male, Wajima, and a major stakes winner, Naskra. Trainer Rick Violette has a nice one-two punch with Read the Footnotes and Swingforthefences.

Read the Footnotes was already considered one of this year's best Derby prospects based on his two most recent victories as a 2-year-old, especially with his masterful performance in the Remsen Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. His hard-fought victory over Second of June in the Fountain of Youth underscores the quality of this colt, especially since he was giving recency and experience over the Gulfstream surface to Second of June. Second of June ran another powerful race despite suffering a condylar fracture, and while he will miss the Triple Crown, the news is good for a return later in the year. Silver Wagon demonstrated he does not want to go beyond one mile and is not a Kentucky Derby candidate.

Read the Footnotes, like many other runners by champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, has demonstrated the ability to be effective at distances up to 1 1/8 miles. While the majority of Smoke Glacken's runners prefer distances up to one mile, Read the Footnotes has done nothing to suggest he has such distance limitations. Like Birdstone and Eurosilver, the question of whether he will be as good at 1 1/4 miles will be answered in how he fares in the 1 1/8-mile Derby preps as a 3-year-old. With his precocious pedigree, Read the Footnotes matured earlier than most members of his foal crop, and while he won at nine furlongs as a 2-year-old, his contemporaries who are bred to develop later will pose much stronger threats at 1 1/4 miles.

Although Gradepoint's Risen Star Stakes victory appeared workmanlike, it was in fact a deceivingly strong performance. Dropping about 15 lengths behind a painfully slow pace, Gradepoint had every right to lose the Risen Star, but he started rolling around the far turn and bulled his way to the front, holding off the more experienced favorite, Mr. Jester, who was never going to get by him.

While there are questions regarding the ability of Read the Footnotes, Birdstone, and Eurosilver to be at their best at 1 1/4 miles, there is no doubt that Gradepoint and Action This Day will relish the Derby distance. In his first start as a 3-year-old, going 1 1/8 miles without the benefit of a prep, Action This Day ran well to be a close fourth, and it should put him in position to win the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.