10/06/2005 12:00AM

Big 3 not only place to look


NEW YORK - Horseplayers used to think that solving the riddle of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile required just three clues: the Champagne, the Breeders' Futurity, and the Norfolk. Figure out which winner of those three major preps was the best, and there's your Juvenile winner.

With the Norfolk already in the books after Brother Derek's uninspiring victory at Santa Anita last Sunday, this year's Juvenile might thus seem to come down to this Saturday's Champagne and Breeders' Futurity. Those two races are likely to yield the Juvenile favorite, who has emerged from one of the three major preps 16 times in 21 years. If First Samurai stays unbeaten in the Champagne, he is nearly certain to be the choice in the Juvenile. Both recent history and this year's Juvenile campaigns, however, suggest that the winner could well come from somewhere else.

While 13 of the first 16 Juvenile winners emerged from one of the three big preps, the last five have not. Wilko in 2004 and Johannesburg in 2001 came straight from Europe; Action This Day in 2003 exited a Santa Anita maiden race. Vindication in 2002 won off a six-week layoff from the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, and Macho Uno in 2000 had his final tune-up in the Grey at Woodbine.

Other than 2003, when the winners of all three big preps were held out of the Juvenile, most have run, including last year when Consolidator (Breeders' Futurity), Roman Ruler (Norfolk), and Proud Accolade (Champagne) ran four-five-six behind Wilko, Afleet Alex, and Sun King. The last 16 winners of those three preps who have tried the Juvenile have all lost: The Groom Is Red, Cat Thief, Buck Trout, Captain Steve, Dixie Union, A P Valentine, Arabian Light, Flame Thrower, Officer, Siphonic, Essence of Dubai, Toccet, and Kafwain, in addition to last year's trio.

In fact, it has been eight years since a Breeders' Futurity winner won the Juvenile (Favorite Trick in 1997) and 11 years since since a Champagne winner scored a repeat (Timber Country in 1994). You have to go back 19 years to find a Norfolk victor (Capote in 1986) in the Juvenile winner's circle.

Another wrinkle this year is that three of the current top five 2-year-olds by most rankings are going to try to emulate Vindication and win the Juvenile off a lengthy freshening instead of running in one of the big three preps. Sorcerer's Stone's final prep was the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 18, Private Vow's was the Futurity Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 17, and Stevie Wonderboy's was the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7.

Stevie Wonderboy's 7 1/2-week break would be the longest ever for a Juvenile winner, 10 days longer than Vindication's 42. The only other Juvenile winners who did not have a prep within four weeks of the main event were Gilded Time in 1992 and Wilko last year, both of whom had five weeks between starts.

If the Champagne and Breeders' Futurity both come up duds or their winners don't make it to the Juvenile, it's possible that one of these layoff horses could end up being the Juvenile favorite. That's what happened in 2002 and 2003, when a pair of Belmont Futurity winners were favored in the Juvenile after skipping the final round of preps. Whywhywhy finished 10th at 5-2 in 2002 and Cuvee was 12th at 8-5 the next year.

The Champagne and Breeders' Futurity are half of Saturday's NTRA National Pick 4, which also includes the Frizette from Belmont and the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland. First Samurai is the most likely single in the four races after the way he drilled Henny Hughes in the Hopeful, with Henny Hughes the most plausible alternative if you think his Hopeful was a bad day rather than an announcement that six furlongs is his best game.

The Breeders' Futurity drew a full field of 14 and Frank Brothers, First Samurai's trainer, could have the favorite there too in the Claiborne Farm homebred Laity, who comes off an 11 3/4-length romp in the Cradle. That race earned only a moderate Beyer of 83 but that's better than anyone else's last race except for High Cotton's 92 winning a six-furlong maiden race at Belmont.

If the favorites fail, it doesn't mean they won't be heard from later. Is It True, Rhythm, Unbridled's Song, and Answer Lively all won the Juvenile after losing either the Champagne or the Breeders' Futurity. The two beaten favorites in last year's renditions didn't turn out too badly either: Though respectively second at 6-5 in the Champagne and seventh at 2-1 in the Breeders' Futurity in 2004, Afleet Alex and Bellamy Road may well have been the two best 3-year-olds of 2005.