03/20/2007 12:00AM

Derby talent pool filling up

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Stephanie Van Minos/Tom Cooley
Street Sense holds off Any Given Saturday (4) by a nose in the Tampa Bay Derby, with both horses earning 101 Beyer Speed Figures.

The spectacular stretch run between Street Sense and Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, coupled with outstanding performances from Curlin in the Rebel Stakes, Cobalt Blue in the San Felipe Stakes, and Song of Navarone in the WinStar Derby this past weekend, were more examples of a developing trend this spring: that this year's crop of 3-year-olds has depth, is fast and consistent, and has numerous candidates who won't find the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles a daunting task.

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile often produces precocious 2-year-olds who falter the following spring, but the form of last year's race, won by Street Sense, has held up. Circular Quay, who finished second, won the Louisiana Derby earlier this month. Great Hunter, who was third, won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Scat Daddy (fourth) and Stormello (fifth) finished one-two, just a nose apart, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. King of the Roxy, who was eighth, won the Hutcheson Stakes, and 10th-place finisher Teuflesberg won the Southwest Stakes. Handicappers would label that a key race.

Street Sense had yet to race as a 3-year-old before Saturday, but he could not have been more impressive. Facing Any Given Saturday, who had the benefit of a winning race a month earlier at Tampa Bay, Street Sense outdueled him in a thrilling finish. Both colts got Beyer Speed Figures of 101. They are scheduled to have a rematch April 14 at Keeneland in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, which also is expected to include Great Hunter.

The biggest question regarding Street Sense will be how he reacts coming out of a hard race following a four-month layoff. The Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass are the only preps he is scheduled to have going into the Kentucky Derby.

"We got tired, we got empty, but looking at him, it's probably what we needed," Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, said Monday. "He was fit going in, but he got the extra depth and fitness he needed. He might have needed a race like that to get ready for the Blue Grass."

Any Given Saturday came out of the race "in good order," trainer Todd Pletcher said.

"You hear different theories whether you want a hard race before the Derby or you don't," Pletcher said. "Every time you prevent them from running too hard or too fast you take less out of them, but the way he cooled out and bounced out of the race, it doesn't seem to have taken anything out of him."

Curlin earned a Beyer Figure of 97 for his victory at Oaklawn Park in the Rebel, in which he showed a new dimension. After flashing high speed to win his sprint debut, Curlin rallied from behind in the Rebel while making only his second start, and his first around two turns and against stakes runners.

"He's immensely talented," his trainer, Steve Asmussen, said Monday morning while awaiting a flight from El Paso, Texas, to New Orleans. "He's still behind the first flight of Derby contenders, but he's going to get better."

Asmussen said Curlin was scheduled to leave Oaklawn on Tuesday for Keeneland, where he will be trained until his next start. Asmussen said the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 14 was Curlin's next likely race.

Asmussen said he decided not to leave Curlin at Oaklawn because "I'm not happy with the way some horses I'm familiar with have been traveling at Oaklawn."

Officer Rocket, second in the Rebel, also is expected back for the Arkansas Derby, trainer Bob Holthus said.

Another colt who could face Curlin at Oaklawn is Cobalt Blue, though trainer Doug O'Neill on Monday said the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 7 was the more likely Derby prep for Cobalt Blue, who got a Beyer Figure of 96 for his front-running win in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.

"He's doing fantastic," O'Neill said. "He ate well and came out of the race in great shape. It looks like Chicago, here we come. I'd rather go to the easiest of those two races, and I think that'll be Hawthorne."

The San Felipe is Santa Anita's final major prep for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which also is April 7. O'Neill has Liquidity slotted for that race.

Song of Navarone is likely to return to Southern California for the Santa Anita Derby. He was third to Ravel and Liquidity in the Sham Stakes last month, then on Sunday captured the WinStar Derby at Sunland Park, earning the weekend's best Beyer Figure among the 3-year-old stakes, a 102. Although it is worth $300,000 to the winner, the WinStar Derby is not a graded stakes race. So, Song of Navarone needs to pad his bankroll in case the Derby field is limited to the maximum of 20 runners, based on earnings in graded stakes.

Another allure of the Santa Anita Derby is that Sunland Park offers a $500,000 bonus to a horse who can sweep the WinStar, Santa Anita, and Kentucky derbies.

In other Derby developments:

* Stormello will go to the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 31 at Gulfstream Park, according to Bill Currin, who trains and co-owns the colt.

"I've got a score to settle with Scat Daddy," he said. Kent Desormeaux, the regular rider for Stormello, is in Dubai that day to ride Premium Tap in the World Cup. Victor Espinoza will take his place, Currin said.

* Corey Nakatani will be in Dubai on March 31 to ride Lava Man in the Dubai Duty Free, so O'Neill said he would try and get Robby Albarado to ride Notional in the Florida Derby. Albarado rode Notional to victory in the Risen Star.

* Trainer D. Wayne Lukas blamed himself for the eighth-place finish of favored Flying First Class in the Rebel, and said he would bring the colt back in the Arkansas Derby.

"In hindsight, he was short, very short," Lukas said. "I did a bad job. I was just asking some people if they thought I could make a living selling used cars. I didn't do enough with him." Lukas added, "I'm not wrong on the horse, just wrong on how I handled him."

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini and Mike Welsch