06/27/2004 11:00PM

Division that couldn't shoot straight

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NEW YORK - No one could have imagined at the start of this year that a colt like Smarty Jones would come along, a colt who would dominate the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and who would turn in one of the most courageous performances in Triple Crown history losing the Belmont Stakes.

No one could have imagined this, or would have predicted it - not at the start of the year when the 3-year-old male division looked like it was in such desperate shape, with its leader being Action This Day. Action This Day, the 2003 2-year-old male Eclipse Award winner, was one of the weakest divisional champions ever. He won his title on the basis of a perfectly set-up victory in undeniably the worst Breeders' Cup Juvenile in history.

At the same time, no one could have imagined at the start of this year that the 3-year-old filly division would fall so completely apart the way it has, with Stellar Jayne's shocking upset of Saturday's Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park as the longest shot in the field at 29-1 being yet another compelling piece of evidence.

Actually, there was a time early this year when many people considered the 3-year-old filly division to be superior to its male counterpart. Most of that had to do with Halfbridled, who was sensational winning all four of her starts last year, including a decisive score in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies that was considerably faster in final time than the Juvenile. Halfbridled's Breeders' Cup victory was also substantially higher in degree of difficulty compared to what Action This Day was required to do to win his Breeders' Cup event.

Moreover, there seemed to be considerably more depth of quality in the 3-year-old filly division than among the males. There was, among others, Ashado, who was the leading member of her division in the East. And Ashado had a near equal in La Reina, who was only a nose behind her in last fall's Demoiselle. There was Society Selection, who was good enough to decisively defeat Ashado in the Frizette last fall in only her second career start. And, there was Victory U. S. A., who was actually 3-5 against Halfbridled in one race last summer.

Yet, although La Reina, Society Selection, and Victory U. S. A. did not hold up their end of the bargain in terms of performance, the primary reason for the disintegration of the 3-year-old filly division has to do with injury. Halfbridled just did not look like the same filly as she was last year, finishing second in her two starts this year before going on the shelf in mid-May with a cannon bone stress fracture that will likely knock her out for the rest of the year.

Madcap Escapade, who looked like a serious threat for leadership in her division after winning the first four starts of her career this year, including a victory over Ashado in the Ashland, is probably out for the rest of 2004. She suffered a hairline hip fracture that may have affected her performance while finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks, her first loss.

Silent Sighs, who ran so big beating Halfbridled in the Santa Anita Oaks, is out until at least very late this year because of chips in both ankles that were discovered following a subpar performance in the Kentucky Oaks.

And, A.P. Adventure, who became a Grade 1 winner early this year in only her third career start, is sidelined until late this year at the earliest because of a hind-end injury.

All of this combined with Ashado's victory in the Kentucky Oaks and Island Sand's victory in the Acorn following her troubled second in the Kentucky Oaks conspired to put Ashado on top in her division, and to make Island Sand a genuine threat for division supremacy. Ashado and Island Sand could have provided the 3-year-old filly division with some much-needed stability with solid performances in the Mother Goose. But, both performed as if the malady that has gutted their division is contagious, which is to say neither delivered.

Island Sand ran so well coming from way back in her prior two starts. She was within easy striking distance of the lead in the Mother Goose, and yet never made the kind of move that made her look like a threat to win. But, Island Sand may at least have an excuse. Her people said after the race that she made a noise suggestive of a breathing problem, which subsequently has been addressed with minor surgery.

As for Ashado, she had no excuse whatsoever. She disputed a moderate pace, mainly with Stellar Jayne, and Stellar Jayne simply ran away from her in the stretch. Afterward, it was suggested that Ashado may have been a bit short coming off a near two-month layoff. But, that two-month layoff was by design, and it should be noted that Ashado beat stronger opponents than Stellar Jayne when she came back from a longer layoff to win the Fair Grounds Oaks in her first start this year.

And as for Stellar Jayne, it could be that she is simply much improved. She did win the Dogwood at Churchill three weeks earlier, albeit in a modest field. On the other hand, Stellar Jayne does not inspire confidence just yet, because she is also the same horse who got her head handed to her in seven straight stakes before the Dogwood.

For that reason, it is likely that a different 3-year-old filly will be the one to get her picture taken after the next major race for her division, the Coaching Club American Oaks. Then again, that is entirely apropos for a division in such a state of disarray.