03/22/2007 12:00AM

Blue Grass will give Street Sense what he needs


NEW YORK - The 3-year-old classic crop of 2007 is taking shape as a deep and refreshingly consistent group. The first four finishers from the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile have already all returned to win graded stakes races this year, with Street Sense taking the Tampa Bay Derby, Circular Quay the Louisiana Derby, Great Hunter the Bob Lewis, and Scat Daddy the Fountain of Youth. Add in Nobiz Like Shobiz, who was narrowly favored over all four of them in the second round of Derby Futures betting, and a half-dozen other intriguing prospects, and it has the looks of a talented and entertaining group.

The only small knock on the 3-year-olds is that no one has run a particularly fast race yet this year. A diagram on the front page of Wednesday's Daily Racing Form listed the top Beyer Speed Figures in route races this year, and the top Beyer was the 104 Ravel earned winning the Sham Stakes. Later that morning, Ravel was declared out of Derby consideration because of an emerging fracture, leaving the rest of the class without a route Beyer in excess of 102 this year.

This is not an indictment or even necessarily a bad thing. It's only March, and you hope that these colts' best races are still in front of them. Still, there is plenty of room for a horse currently absent from anyone's top-10 list to run a single big-figure race over the next four weekends and suddenly become the Derby favorite, the way that Bellamy Road and Sweetnorthernsaint did the last two years.

The big asterisk to the generally slow route figures in the crop is Street Sense's winning figure as a 2-year-old in the Juvenile, where he won by 10 lengths and registered a 108, the highest Beyer awarded in the race since the figures were first published in 1991. While it seems likely that his margin that day was aided by his perfect trip up a seemingly paved rail path, it was still a stunning display of raw talent.

That he earned only a 101 nosing out Any Given Saturday to win his season debut in Tampa last Saturday should not be seen as a sign of regression. It is hard to imagine that he was fully cranked up for his first start in over four months by a trainer with a penchant for getting his horses to peak on target days. Carl Nafzger did exactly the same thing with Unbridled, who earned only moderate figures in his preps for the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic but then delivered career-best performances to upset both races.

Will Street Sense run a big number next time out in his final Derby prep, the Blue Grass at Keeneland April 14? The guess here is that he won't, and one reason, beyond his trainer's master plan, is that the race will be run on Polytrack, the artificial surface over which too few races of high quality have been run to be evaluated with any confidence. On the limited sample from the inaugural Keeneland meeting where it was used last fall, it seems the slower paces and closer-friendliness of the surface may produce a more bunched-up range of winning times and figures, the way that grass racing usually does. According to Keeneland, the average margin of victory in all its main-track races dropped from 3.86 lengths on dirt in 2005 to 1.63 lengths on Polytrack in 2006, and the average distance from first to last place narrowed from 29.4 to 16.4 lengths.

Evaluating the Blue Grass is going to be a tricky key to this year's Derby, but there is a striking parallel to last fall's 2-year-olds who went from the Breeders' Futurity on Keeneland Polytrack to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Churchill dirt. The Futurity earned a mediocre Beyer of 90, but the same three colts who ran 3-2-1 at Keeneland came back to run 1-2-3 at Churchill while facing eight new shooters from around the country. Street Sense could be poised for a similar improvement from Lexington to Louisville this spring, even if he loses his next start or wins without wowing students of time.

One thing it seems overly fearful to worry about is the notion that Street Sense did too much too soon by fighting Any Given Saturday for the length of the stretch at Tampa off a long layoff. It's a sign of these career-shortened, fragile-limbed times in racing that so many people's first reaction to a good old-fashioned stretch duel is that the combatants must emerge weary and damaged. An alternate take on the race is that this is what good racehorses are supposed to do and that it was just the sort of race these colts need in March to be ready for the Derby in May.