03/15/2005 12:00AM

Derby shaping up as a speedy one

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LAS VEGAS - While undefeated Declan's Moon was the clear favorite for the Kentucky Derby before being sidelined by a chipped knee, he was hardly scaring away the opposition, and the 20-horse limit rule looked like a sure thing this year. In his absence, it seems even more certain there will be a maximum field that will be decided by highest earnings in graded stakes.

With a victory in the $600,000 Louisiana Derby, High Limit (Maria's Mon) leapfrogged many aspiring Derby hopefuls in his 3-year-old debut last weekend, but he is another front-runner who may be compromised by the likely abundance of speed in this year's run for the roses.

There are no fewer than 11 horses on the Derby trail who have shown they prefer to be on the lead or close to it: Fusaichi Rock Star (Wild Wonder), Galloping Grocer (A. P Jet), Going Wild (Golden Missile), High Fly (Atticus), Lost in the Fog (Lost Soldier), Rockport Harbor (Unbridled's Song), Roman Ruler (Fusaichi Pegasus), Spanish Chestnut (Horse Chestnut), Uncle Denny (In Excess), High Limit, and another winner from last weekend, Bellamy Road (Saint Ballado).

Four stakes races for 3-year-olds highlight racing this weekend: the Gotham, Rebel, and San Felipe stakes, and the Tampa Bay Derby.

Tampa Bay Derby

Sun King (Charismatic), who was scintillating in his 3-year-old debut in a Feb. 26 allowance at Gulfstream, supplies the glamour for the Tampa Bay Derby. Nick Zito, who is the envy of all trainers with a barnful of 3-year-old talent - Sun King, Andromeda's Hero (Fusaichi Pegasus), High Fly, Noble Causeway (Giant's Causeway), and Bellamy Road - could sweep Tampa Bay's stakes for 3-year-old colts, as Andromeda's Hero won the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Sun King should only get better with each furlong over one mile.

Rebel

The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park features a talented trio in Afleet Alex (Northern Afleet), Greater Good (Intidab), and Rockport Harbor (Unbridled's Song), but the status of Rockport Harbor is day-to-day because of recurrent physical problems. The Derby distance is a big question for all three colts, but they are all bred to win at the Rebel distance of 1 1/16 miles.

Greater Good won the Southwest Stakes over this track but meets a better colt in Afleet Alex, who looked super in winning his 2005 debut, the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes on March 5, also over this surface.

Gotham

The Gotham has been a strategic one-mile prep for the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial, and Galloping Grocer looks to get back to his winning ways after a disappointing fourth in the Whirlaway Stakes in his last start. Naughty New Yorker (Quiet American), second in the Whirlaway, is also expected for the Gotham, but three colts with quality pedigrees are intriguing: Survivalist, Mr. Congeniality, and Our Friend Timmy.

Survivalist finished second to Sun King in a one-mile allowance in his last start and descends from three generations of Phipps broodmares: Miner's Game, Con Game, and the blue hen Broadway.

Miner's Game was not much of a racehorse, but she was retained as a broodmare because of her lineage. She is a full sister to Seeking the Gold and half-sister to stakes winners Fast Play and Stacked Pack. Another half-sister, Tricky Game, produced stakes winner King Cugat.

Con Game was also just a modest winner, but she was a half-sister to two outstanding performers: 1967's 2-year-old filly champion, Queen of the Stage, and her stakes-winning full brother Reviewer, immortalized as the sire of Ruffian.

Mr. Congeniality is bred to achieve success later than his contemporaries, being by the late Chester House. While most runners from Chester House's first crop have shown a decided preference for turf, Mr. Congeniality did not win in two turf starts this winter at Gulfstream, but won on Aqueduct's inner dirt track in December. His second dam is a full sister to Darn That Alarm.

Our Friend Timmy is yet another 3-year-old trained by Zito, who also trained his stakes-winning sire, Stephen Got Even. Our Friend Timmy is not nominated for the Triple Crown, but could develop later in the year for Zito. He is a member of the first crop of Stephen Got Even, which includes Don't Get Mad and Mayan King. Our Friend Timmy is out of the Danzig mare Tomisue's Dancer, and his second dam, stakes winner Tis Juliet, is a full sister to stakes winner Stella Madrid.

San Felipe

The San Felipe should be the most entertaining, if not most important prep of the four stakes because it features five well-regarded Derby hopefuls.

Wilko (Awesome Again) and Roman Ruler (Fusaichi Pegasus) will make their 2005 debuts in the San Felipe. Wilko, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but third behind Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity last time out, is the most accomplished runner in the field, while dual stakes winner Roman Ruler seeks to recapture his early brilliance. A healthy Roman Ruler is a formidable animal and will be very tough here.

D. Wayne Lukas acknowledged that Consolidated (Storm Cat) was a short horse for his 3-year-old debut when he finished a lackluster fourth (and last) in the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 13. The exciting Golden Shine (Touch Gold) steps up in class after a 7 1/2-length score in a 1 1/16-mile allowance on Feb. 16, which was his first start since last July.

Don't Get Mad (Stephen Got Even), a stablemate of Declan's Moon, could soften what has been a heartbreaking week for trainer Ron Ellis. Winner of his only two starts last year for Paul McGee, Don't Get Mad finished strongly to be second to Fusaichi Rock Star in the San Vicente Stakes in his first start for Ellis. Don't Get Mad is out of stakes-placed Class on Class, a half-sister to the dam of Gradepoint, who won the Risen Star Stakes last year.