Updated on 09/17/2011 2:05PM

Derby winner ran on Fountain card


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Making predictions about the Kentucky Derby is difficult enough when it's done 24 hours before the race, so it is probably foolish to issue an opinion nearly three months in advance. Nevertheless, I feel reasonably confident that the people at Gulfstream Park a week ago Saturday saw the 2004 Derby winner in action.

On a card filled with races for 3-year-olds, Read the Footnotes won the Fountain of Youth Stakes after a dramatic stretch duel with Second of June (who injured himself in the race and was knocked out of the Derby picture). Highly regarded Birdstone made his season debut with an easy victory in a soft allowance race. Swingforthefences looked impressive winning another allowance event.

Though in many recent years the Florida 3-year-olds have been inferior to their California counterparts, the best horses of the generation appear to be concentrated here this winter.

In trying to find the colt who will be draped with roses on May 1, handicappers naturally examine the contenders' speed figures and overall form, but raw talent is only part of the Derby equation. A colt must have a foundation of experience as a 2-year-old in order to succeed; late-bloomers don't win the Derby. A colt must possess the pedigree and running style to go 1 1/4 miles effectively; every year there are early-season flashes who falter as the distances get longer. And a colt benefits if he has a trainer with the skill and experience to get him ready for the Derby.

I have doubts about many of the nation's leading 3-year-olds. I don't like Eurosilver, the No. 1 horse in the Daily Racing Form's ranking of Derby contenders. His main claim to fame was a victory in a stakes at Keeneland that he won with a perfect set-up; he rallied on the rail after a fast pace had enervated all the speed horses in the field.

I don't like Action This Day, the champion of his generation, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall in very slow time. He lost his 3-year-old debut at Santa Anita in another slow race, confirming that the California colts are a sub-par bunch. (The most talented youngster in the West may be Rock Hard Ten, who won his career debut Feb. 7 in dazzling fashion, but he has bloomed too late to have a chance in the Derby.)

I don't know what to make of Tapit, who overcame a troubled trip to win the Laurel Futurity in his second career start last fall. He has great talent, an excellent pedigree, and a legendary trainer in Michael Dickinson. But Tapit had a minor physical setback that postponed his 3-year-old debut, and he might wind up going into the Derby with only four races behind him. That's not sufficient, according to Derby history, though if anyone can defy the norms of the game, Dickinson can.

The 3-year-old generation didn't have a clear leader before the Fountain of Youth, but it did after Read the Footnotes's victory. He not only displayed toughness and tenacity outfighting the more seasoned Second of June, but he proved that he is the fastest member of his age group. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113, the best such figure in a Derby prep race since 2001. Last year, the fastest prep was the Wood Memorial Stakes, in which Empire Maker earned a 111 by edging Funny Cide; the two of them went on to dominate the Triple Crown series.

Still, there are reasons to wonder if Read the Footnotes can duplicate this effort in the classics. He is a son of the sprinter Smoke Glacken, and thus there are doubts about his ability to go 10 furlongs. "With most pedigrees like this," said bloodlines expert Bill Oppenheim, "you'd think nine furlongs would be the limit."

Read the Footnotes's stablemate, Swingforthefences, who rallied to win impressively over the speed-favoring track on Fountain of Youth day, looks like a more natural distance-running prospect.

Running such a fast, stressful race so early in the season could have a negative effect on Read the Footnotes (as it surely did on his ill-fated rival, Second of June). He might have peaked too soon when he should have saved that 113 figure for the Derby itself.

A few hours before Read the Footnotes' big effort, Birdstone won his first start as a 3-year-old with a modest figure of 93. This non-explosive effort was part of trainer Nick Zito's plan, because he is singlemindedly focused on getting his 3-year-olds to peak in the Derby.

Birdstone made an instant impression when he won his debut at Saratoga by a dozen lengths (with a Beyer of 99). After he captured the prestigious Champagne Stakes last fall, Zito skipped the Breeders' Cup with both him and his stablemate Eurosilver because he wanted to keep his colts fresh for their 3-year-old campaigns. Birdstone isn't especially big or robust, and Zito still hasn't trained him hard this year. But he believes that with prudent handling the colt can be a Derby winner. "He's got the motor, and he's got the heart," Zito said. "I think he can do it."

Last fall, when Zito took his stable to Kentucky for the Keeneland meeting, his horses gave explosive performances, with one after another running career bests. A similar scenario may develop this spring. Zito's little colt may not attract special attention during the pre-Derby campaign, but he'll be primed to run the race of his life when it counts. My long-range Derby exacta: Birdstone and Read the Footnotes.

(c) 2004, The Washington Post