01/09/2006 12:00AM

Derby dreams in January

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Bill Denve/EQUI-PHOTOS
Doctor Decherd (inside) starts his 3-year-old season with a win, outdueling Itsallaboutthechase in Saturday's Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream.

NEW YORK - Perhaps the most intriguing race this past weekend occurred in a relatively modest stakes event at a track that is not the first place you would look for noteworthy efforts this time of the year.

The racing at Aqueduct during the winter is often, and rightly, overshadowed by what transpires at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. But on Saturday in the Count Fleet Stakes for 3-year-olds, Achilles of Troy made Aqueduct feel almost like Saratoga in August, thanks to a sizzling victory that just might place him among the more viable candidates for the Kentucky Derby.

The field in the Count Fleet was, quite frankly, weak. But for a mile-and-70-yard race with a purse well under six figures, the Count Fleet has a little bit of history going for it. Thunder Rumble won it in 1992, and he went on to win the Travers. Prairie Bayou won it in 1993, and went on to win the Preakness. And two years ago, Smarty Jones won it, and as we all know, he might have swept the Triple Crown had he gone just a little bit slower during that unnecessarily fast middle half-mile in the Belmont Stakes.

Owner Ernie Paragallo and trainer Jennifer Pedersen can only pray that Achilles of Troy comes close to those kind of horses, but his Count Fleet was a step in the right direction. Achilles of Troy stalked a fast early pace from close range, blew the race completely open with a bold burst of speed around the far turn, and continued to pour it on through the stretch to rack up a 14-length score. The way Achilles of Troy won was somewhat reminiscent of Bellamy Road's sensational victory in the Wood Memorial last spring, an effort that secured him the role of favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Although Achilles of Troy didn't run quite fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 120 like the one Bellamy Road earned in the Wood - given how fast Aqueduct's inner track was Saturday, Achilles of Troy would have had to have broken the track record by more than a full second to do that - he did earn a Beyer Figure of 104. That's pretty good at this stage of the game, and you know his connections will do everything they can to get this colt, who is now 2 for 2 with Lasix, to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Achilles of Troy had to be good Saturday to steal the thunder from Gulfstream's Aventura Stakes, which launched that track's important series of Triple Crown prep races. And while there is an inclination to devalue 3-year-old stakes races in January because they come so early on the road to the Kentucky Derby, it is worth remembering that last year's Aventura was won by High Fly. He, of course, went on to win more highly regarded Triple Crown preps like the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and was sent off fourth choice of 20 in the betting for the Kentucky Derby.

After Doctor Decherd, trained by Steve Asmussen, prevailed for a 14-1 upset in the Aventura, the popular conclusion was that Asmussen now has another Derby aspirant to go along with Private Vow, who was one of the top five or six 2-year-olds in the nation last year off victories in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs and the Futurity at Belmont Park. That conclusion is premature, however. While Doctor Decherd was admirably game to withstand racing in traffic and a stretchlong duel, there was only one graded-stakes winner among the 11 who finished behind him. Doctor Decherd wasn't nearly as impressive as Achilles of Troy, let alone as dominating, and ran only fast enough to earn a pedestrian Beyer Figure of 85.

All analysis of 3-year-old stakes form from now until further notice will be done, understandably, in the context of the Triple Crown. But there is certainly life beyond the Triple Crown, and Saturday's San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita was good evidence of that.

High Limit, who finished dead last, beaten an area code, in last year's Kentucky Derby, and who had not won since a victory that was entirely attributable to an overwhelming speed bias in the Louisiana Derby 10 months ago, proved to be a stronger, tougher individual in his first appearance at 4. High Limit engaged in a racelong battle with Buckland Manor, and while Buckland Manor is mainly a turf specialist, he is a high-class one who also has the knack for performing at peak effectiveness on Santa Anita's main track. These two battled through strong fractions, and unlike last year, when he would cave under such a scenario, High Limit just would not succumb, even in the face of repeated challenges through the stretch.

That should give hope to Achilles of Troy and Doctor Decherd, even if things in the near term don't pan out the way their people surely hope.