03/07/2005 12:00AM

Don't forget about the runners-up

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NEW YORK - It is saying something that even in the face of races like the Santa Anita Handicap, the Kilroe Mile, and the Gulfstream Park Handicap, many people felt the most interesting and entertaining races last weekend were the ones for 3-year-olds. This is certainly a function of the time of year - the 2005 Kentucky Derby is only eight weeks from Saturday - and how the Derby dominates the racing picture for the first third of the calendar year.

Any discussion of Saturday's Derby preps should begin with Declan's Moon, the champion 2-year-old male of 2004 and the future book favorite for the Derby. Declan's Moon stretched his undefeated streak to five in Santa Anita's Santa Catalina, managing to put daylight between himself and the field in the late stages despite having not raced in nearly three months and racing three wide around both turns. It was a solid performance, but not one that eliminated any room for quibbles.

First, Declan's Moon ran fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of only 96, which was the lowest of the four most important 3-year-old races Saturday. This number matched the figure Declan's Moon earned in the Hollywood Futurity, his only other two-turn start, and these numbers are below the ones he earned in his two sprint stakes victories. In other words, the question remains whether Declan's Moon really is as good around two turns as he is around one, and a question is raised about how much he has progressed from 2 to 3.

Second, if anyone wants to commend Declan's Moon's Santa Catalina, they should be ready to give just as much credit to runner-up Going Wild, who arguably ran just as well. Going Wild missed the break and was bounced around between horses in the ensuing strides. That took him out of the front-running game that served him so well when he won the Sham and San Miguel. He also nearly ran up on Spanish Chestnut's heels in the run to the first turn. Nevertheless, Going Wild fought on every step and was beaten only two lengths.

Finally, the Santa Catalina was the first of just two Kentucky Derby preps scheduled for Declan's Moon. With a two-race prep itinerary having worked only once in the last 57 years, history is not on Declan's Moon's side.

At Gulfstream, there seemed to be a mad dash to jump on Lost in the Fog's bandwagon as he stretched his undefeated streak to four with a score in the Swale Stakes. That performance, apparently, officially put Lost in the Fog on the Derby trail, as his connections said he would now be made a late nominee to the Triple Crown. But before addressing the Swale, let's talk about the Fountain of Youth.

High Fly got a much better trip in the Fountain of Youth than he did when he suffered his only defeat in the Holy Bull, and that made all the difference. In his first start for trainer Nick Zito, High Fly prevailed in a final time good enough for a 99 Beyer.

But, if there is a horse I would want from the Fountain of Youth, it would be the runner-up, Bandini. In his first start in a stakes race, Bandini was caught three wide around both turns. It looked as if that ground loss did him in as he fell nearly three lengths off the lead in midstretch. But Bandini re-rallied to get second, beaten less than a length, and was gaining with every stride until the wire came up too soon. This was only the fourth career start for Bandini, so he has tons of upside, especially if he improves in blinkers, as trainer Todd Pletcher suspects he might.

As for Lost in the Fog, the 105 Beyer he earned for his nearly five-length win in the Swale made it four triple-digit Beyers in as many starts. People will make a big deal over how he relaxed and conceded the early lead, although conceding the early lead to an overmatched 69-1 shot is often tantamount to being on the lead. Whatever, I am now willing to concede that Lost in the Fog may well turn out to be a fine sprinter/miler, but I still have serious doubts about him at a real distance of ground. He went his final eighth under a drive in the Swale in 13.25 seconds. By comparison, High Fly, in a race that was a quarter of a mile longer, went his last eighth in 13.24, and Bandini came home considerably faster.

For my money, by far the most impressive sprint performance by a Derby candidate Saturday was Afleet Alex's in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Not only did Afleet Alex earn a better Beyer Figure (106) for his powerful score, but he also went out an additional furlong after the race in a time equivalent to what Lost in the Fog drove home in in the Swale, and did so off only two published workouts this year. Afleet Alex could have easily won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne with slightly better trips and also be undefeated. He has already proven effective around two turns, and it is a plus for him that he will now have three preps for the Derby.