12/05/2005 1:00AM

Dark horses for 2006

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Among the horses on the verge of a breakout season are (above, left and right) Sun King and Wilko; Bellamy Road, and the improving Suave and Magna Graduate.

NEW YORK - The retirement last week of Afleet Alex, combined with the prior retirements of such important horses of 2005 as Saint Liam, Rock Hard Ten, Roses in May, Eddington, Roman Ruler, and Ghostzapper, might have some forward-looking observers believing that next year there could be more Grade 1 races for older males than there are actual Grade 1-caliber older males to compete in them.

Although it is possible that could prove to be the case, it is, at least at this point, premature to worry about the quality of the 2006 handicap division. There is a good core group of horses who figure to be mainstays in their division next year, horses such as Flower Alley, Borrego, Perfect Drift, Commentator, Giacomo, Silver Train, and perhaps even Declan's Moon. And, this group will be bolstered by another set of horses who, though not as accomplished, have the potential to be serious players in the 2006 older male division.

Who are these horses? Here's a baker's dozen, in alphabetical order, to consider:

Bandini: He had a chip removed from his right front ankle after his disastrous 19th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, and has no workouts since. But this is a colt who was good enough to be a strong second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in just his fourth career start, and then he blew away his field in the Blue Grass. So, the requisite quality is there.

Bellamy Road: You could say that he doesn't exactly fly below everyone's radar, but he isn't at the top of everyone's list of potential big horses of 2006, either. He was absolutely breathtaking winning the Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths in excellent time, so sensational, in fact, that he was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby despite lacking the type of prep schedule that traditionally is successful. He suffered a splint injury finishing seventh in the Derby, but showed his quality finishing second in the Travers off a 3 1/2-month layoff, only to suffer another splint injury.

Buzzards Bay: The upset winner of the Santa Anita Derby has been on a few people's "good horse waiting to happen" list ever since his tantalizing wide move late on the far turn in the Kentucky Derby before winding up fifth. He was a decent third in the Discovery for new trainer Ron Ellis, and has the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 28 at Santa Anita as his first major goal of 2006.

Don't Get Mad: Fourth in the Derby just one week after winning the Derby Trial, and subsequent winner of the Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup and Indiana Derby, he will have a new, as yet to be determined trainer when he returns sometime in the spring.

Greeley's Galaxy: Had a bad trip when 11th in the Kentucky Derby, and was pin-fired after his dismal seventh in the Preakness, but he did have four published workouts in November. The ability he demonstrated winning the Illinois Derby by 9 1/2 lengths was not an optical illusion, and is certainly more representative of his abilities.

Magna Graduate: Like Bellamy Road, he is not exactly a state secret, and that is because of the marked improvement he has shown since moving into Todd Pletcher's barn. For Pletcher, Magna Graduate finished second in the Ohio and West Virginia derbies before reeling off wins in the Pegasus, Discovery, and Clark Handicap. The win in the Clark was particularly noteworthy, because it made this colt one of only two 3-year-olds this year to win an important race over good older horses, the other being Silver Train, who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Rockport Harbor: Lost virtually all of this year due to a difficult foot injury, but is now back working. He entered 2005 as one of the future book favorites for the Kentucky Derby off an excellent 2-year-old campaign that saw him win all four of his starts, including the Nashua and Remsen.

Suave: He found himself this year, winning the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, and finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Clark, in which he lost by just a head. But his best effort may have been his fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he was beaten only three lengths. He may hook up again with Magna Graduate in the Donn Handicap on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park.

Sun King: Like Rockport Harbor, he also entered 2005 as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby off a pair of thirds in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne, but he did not progress at the rate demanded by the schedule of the Triple Crown. He did, however, show flashes late in the season, like his runaway win in the Pennsylvania Derby after breaking from post 14. And his ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic was better than it looks on paper, as he contested the pace while racing on the deeper rail.

Surf Cat: He showed a world of potential when he ran off and hid in the Swaps Breeders' Cup in just his second attempt in a stakes. He is supposedly targeting the Strub Series at Santa Anita, which begins with the Malibu the day after Christmas, but he has no published works since he galloped in an allowance race at Oak Tree in October.

Survivalist: His status is also a bit unclear, as he has not been seen in the morning or afternoon since his fourth in the Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup on Belmont Stakes Day. However, he did win the Gotham in his first stakes attempt while giving the impression his best races were well ahead of him. He also has an impeccable pedigree (Danzig-Miner's Game), and is in the hands of a master, Shug McGaughey.

Tap Day: Forget his unsuccessful attempt in the Japan Cup Dirt, this soon-to-be 5-year-old ran the race of his life in October, running away with the Meadowlands Breeders' Cup, dominating Alumni Hall, who came back to win the Fayette, and Purge, who came back to score in the Cigar Mile.

Wilko: The upsetter of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile was compromised early this year by a quarter crack problem, which puts a different perspective on his close third in the Santa Anita Derby and his decent sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Then, he had an ankle chip removed after a dismal effort in the Preakness. He is training very well now, though, and is scheduled to make his comeback in the Malibu.