11/27/2006 1:00AM

Brilliant 3-year-old crop will boost older division

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It all started with the undefeated Barbaro's (by Dynaformer) authoritative six-length victory in the Kentucky Derby in a field that was considered quite strong. With all the attention rightfully centered on Barbaro's tragic breakdown in the Preakness, it was easy to overlook the emergence of Bernardini (A.P. Indy). His Preakness Stakes victory was just as impressive as Barbaro's Derby.

While the discussion begins as to whether Barbaro, Bernardini, or Discreet Cat (Forestry) is the best 3-year-old, racing's biggest story of 2006 will be the saving of Barbaro. Barbaro, of course, will never race again, but it is a miracle of modern medicine and the will of the humans that surround him that he is alive. That is the story of the year.

Bernardini put together an impressive string of powerful victories to become racing's darling from mid-May to early November. A second-place finish to Invasor (Candy Stripes) in the Breeders' Cup Classic did not diminish his stature. If anything, it is his premature retirement after just one year of racing that leaves a bitter taste. A picture of health, Bernardini retires very sound. He is owned by the powerful Darley Stable, and money is certainly not the issue. Thoroughbreds generally do not reach their peak until age 4 or 5, and not having a horse of Bernardini's rare talent race at age 4 is a great disservice to racing. His stud career could certainly be put on hold for another year.

One of the most promising juveniles of 2005, Bluegrass Cat (Storm Cat) got off to a rather slow start at 3 this year, but woke up in the Kentucky Derby, finishing a game second. Winner of the Haskell Invitational, Bluegrass Cat also was second in the Belmont and Travers stakes before an injury forced his retirement.

First Samurai (Giant's Causeway), who was so good last year at 2, never developed at 3 and was retired early in the season. Henny Hughes (Hennessy), also brilliant at 2, skipped the Triple Crown entirely but returned a bigger, faster version at 3, becoming one of the year's top sprinters. Both have been prematurely retired to stud.

In the void left by the departure of Barbaro and Bernardini, Discreet Cat becomes the best 3-year-old currently in training. His Cigar Mile victory - he covered the mile in 1:32.46, which in fifths of a second ties Easy Goer's track record of 1:32 2/5 - was simply a performance for the ages. Expected to return next year a more powerful and mature 4-year-old, Discreet Cat has, at least, the opportunity to join racing's greats - something that Barbaro could not do because of his untimely injury and that Bernardini was prevented from doing by his owners.

The images of Barbaro, Bernardini, and Discreet Cat loom so large this year that other 3-year-olds who have been away from the races have been forgotten. But that may change next year.

* Leading this group is Stevie Wonderboy, the 2-year-old champion of this crop whose injury prevented him from running in the Triple Crown. Recurrent minor ailments have delayed his return; a healthy Stevie Wonderboy would be a welcome addition to an older division that will be headed by Invasor and Discreet Cat.

* Also forgotten is Corinthian (Pulpit), who finished first in the Fountain of Youth Stakes but was disqualified and placed third. Various injuries including a chronic skin ailment made this a forgettable year, but he showed tremendous ability before being sidelined and could return with a bang at 4.

* Jazil (Seeking the Gold), the Belmont Stakes winner who was also second in the Wood Memorial behind Bob and John (Seeking the Gold), is on the comeback trail and should be ready for the Gulfstream Park meet in early 2007.

* Strong Contender (Maria's Mon) is one of a trio of John Ward-trained colts who could rack up many stakes victories at 4. Winner of the Dwyer Stakes and Super Derby, Strong Contender also was third in the Blue Grass and Peter Pan stakes and the Haskell Invitational. Minister's Bid (Deputy Minister), second in the Jim Dandy, and Dr. Pleasure (Thunder Gulch), second in last year's Cowdin Stakes and third in the Travers Stakes, should also return next year.

* Also returning next year are Sweetnorthernsaint (Sweetsouthernsaint), winner of the Illinois Derby and second to Bernardini in the Preakness; Lawyer Ron (Langfuhr), winner of the Arkansas Derby, Risen Star, Southwest, and Rebel Stakes; Steppenwolfer (Aptitude), second in the Arkansas Derby and Southwest Stakes and third in the Kentucky Derby and Rebel Stakes; Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek (Benchmark); Blue Grass Stakes winner Sinister Minister (Old Trieste); and Private Vow (Broken Vow), another who looked so good at age 2 but never recaptured that good form at 3.

With such a deep crop planning to race at 4, 2007 could be a banner year for older runners.