01/22/2002 12:00AM

Despite setback, Siphonic still tops

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LAS VEGAS - The Santa Catalina Stakes and Holy Bull Stakes last weekend signaled the start of the Triple Crown season.

The Santa Catalina was supposed to be another notch in the belt of a rising star, Siphonic. He lost all chance at the start when he stumbled badly, but he was gallant in defeat.

The winner, Labamta Babe, is a nice colt who will win his share of stakes, but his pedigree suggests 1 1/4 miles will be a stretch, at least this year. His sire, Skywalker, won the Breeders' Cup Classic at the Derby distance, at age 4. Skywalker is a speed influence, and his best son, Bertrando, followed in his footsteps, getting 1 1/4 miles only as a mature, older horse.

Siphonic (Siphon) still remains among the top echelon of Kentucky Derby prospects. Siphon won a Group 2 stakes in Brazil at 3, and developed into a major older runner, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup and Santa Anita Handicap. Siphonic has inherited this speed, and his classy female family suggests he should also be able to get 1 1/4 miles. Siphonic's dam is by Cherokee Colony, a son of stamina influence Pleasant Colony out of a Nijinsky II mare. Siphonic's dam, Cherokee Crossing, is a stakes-placed half-sister to stakes winner, Dixie Dot Com, a talented runner whose career was compromised by numerous injuries. Carson City and General Meeting descend from this female family.

Holy Bull winner not Derby material

Booklet wired his field in the Holy Bull Stakes, but he is not Derby material. Booklet's sire, Notebook, has had a successful career at stud, but his runners are most effective up to 1 1/8 miles. In fact, Booklet's sire line (Notebook-Well Decorated-Raja Baba-Bold Ruler) is well-known for its brilliance, not stamina. While the game and consistent Booklet should again be tough in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at the Holy Bull distance, Harlan's Holiday (Harlan) should turn the tables on Booklet.

Unraced since his victory in the Iroquois Stakes last November, Harlan's Holiday ran a good race to finish second, considering he was four-wide the entire 1 1/16 miles. He was then kept wide by Booklet, who drifted out repeatedly in the final eighth.

Harlan proved with Menifee that he is capable of siring a classic runner. Harlan's Holiday's dam, Christmas in Aiken, is by Triple Crown winner Affirmed, and his third dam is Princessnesian, a multiple stakes-winning daughter of stamina influence Princequillo.

The real disappointment in the Holy Bull was Nokoma (Pulpit), who was outfinished by Thiscannonsloaded (Wild Escapade) for third, 11 lengths behind Harlan's Holiday.

Don't forget Johannesburg

Johannesburg was one of the most impressive 2-year-olds to come along in years. He won six straight races in Europe, among them three group 1 races in three different countries. Entering the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, however, he had never been beyond six furlongs, had never raced counterclockwise, and had never raced on dirt.

But trainer Aidan O'Brien, who had a Bobby Frankel-type year in Europe, knew what he had. Johannesburg didn't just win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he made it a coronation. An Eclipse for champion 2-year-old is a foregone conclusion, but is he a Kentucky Derby contender?

Of course, brilliant form at 2 does not automatically translate to brilliant form at 1 1/4 miles in May. But special horses have a way of outrunning their pedigrees.

Johannesburg is from the second crop of Hennessy, who is a speed influence, and he has proven to be a most versatile sire, getting winners on dirt, wet tracks, and especially turf. For the most part, the runners of other speed influences like Raise a Native, Bold Ruler, and Mr. Prospector, were best under 1 1/4 miles. Every now and then, however, those stallions sired superior individuals who were able to carry their speed 1 1/4 miles, and longer.

Johannesburg's prep races in Europe will go a long way in determining whether he is capable of getting 1 1/4 miles, but he already is the best runner by his sire, and the incredible depth of his female family may be the key to his success at longer distances.

Every generation going back to his fifth dam has produced quality stakes winners. His dam is a half-sister to stakes winners, Minardi, Tale of the Cat and Spunoutacontrol.

His second dam is a full sister to stakes winner Preach, the dam of exciting young sire Pulpit, and his third dam, stakes winner Narrate, is a half-sister to stakes winners Announce, Double Feint, Dibs and Region.

His fourth dam, Monarchy, is a full sister to one of racing's great stars, Round Table.

Winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on a strange surface, at a new distance, and in a strange country, Johannesburg overcame incredible adversity and proved he is something special.

Until he gives reason to doubt his ability to get a distance, it would be folly to dismiss an undefeated 2-year-old who accomplished light years more than most juvenile champions.