12/31/2004 1:00AM

Early look at a late Florida Derby

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Many Kentucky Derby hopefuls will start out 2005 at Gulfstream Park, including stakes winners Flamenco (above), Defer, and Straight Line.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The extensive physical change in the Gulfstream Park landscape has brought along a more subtle change in the track's most visible series of races. The 3-year-old events leading to the Florida Derby have undergone revisions that Gulfstream racing secretary Dave Bailey believes will strengthen the series and make it more alluring to horsemen.

The Florida Derby series now consists of four two-turn races, each spaced four weeks apart: the Jan. 8 Aventura, Feb. 5 Holy Bull, March 5 Fountain of Youth, and April 2 Florida Derby. This lineup differs from recent years, when the Holy Bull started the series in mid-January, followed by the Fountain of Youth in mid-February and the Florida Derby in mid-March.

Perhaps the most significant fallout from the new schedule is that the Florida Derby now will be run five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, rather than six to eight weeks, as in recent years.

"Actually, we're just going back to the schedule the Florida Derby followed for many years," said Bailey. "From 1957 to 1987, the Florida Derby was run on the last Saturday of March or the first Saturday in April, meaning it was four or five weeks from the Kentucky Derby. It was a great race then, and it's been a great race since then.

"There are several reasons we thought it would be worth moving it this year. One is that some trainers may want to keep their 3-year-olds on the same racetrack they've been training on and running on all winter before they go to Kentucky. Another was to add the Aventura into the series and space the races out the way we have. Another was to keep my good outfits here in south Florida a little longer than they've been staying and try to extend the good part of the meet.

"The five weeks from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby is the kind of timing that horsemen have come to like," Bailey added. "Maybe a while back this would have been a bigger deal, but now, that's a time between races that a lot of trainers seem to prefer for a top horse."

Bailey said the $1 million purse of the Florida Derby is incentive for trainers to stick around a few weeks longer. He added that the later date had nothing to do with Gulfstream's ongoing renovation and an attempt to limit the usual large crowd that attends the Florida Derby.

As for which 3-year-olds will participate as the Florida Derby series progresses, there does not seem to be many standouts. Clearly, the strength of the North American 3-year-old division is in California, where Declan's Moon, Wilko, Roman Ruler, Consolidator, Texcess, and the filly Sweet Catomine rank high among the crop of prospects for the 131st Kentucky Derby.

Even some of the best horses that raced last year as 2-year-olds in the East or Midwest won't be based in south Florida this year, notably Remsen winner Rockport Harbor, Hopeful winner Afleet Alex, and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Greater Good, all of whom will stable at Oaklawn Park.

Nonetheless, no one ever really knows from where a good 3-year-old will emerge, and Bailey is excited about what might develop here this winter.

"I'd say we've got 60 to 75 percent of the best 3-year-olds in the East coming to south Florida this year," he said, referring not only to Gulfstream, but to Palm Meadows, Payson Park, Palm Beach Downs, and Calder.

Anyone's guess at which 3-year-olds might blossom into bonafide classics prospects would seemingly start with the usual suspects among the south Florida trainer elite: Todd Pletcher, Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, and, for the first time in Florida this winter, Bobby Frankel.

Pletcher trains 14 of the 98 horses that were made early bird nominees to the Florida Derby series. The most accomplished among them is Proud Accolade, winner of the Champagne. But after that colt failed to fire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Hollywood Futurity, any of a handful of Pletcher colts seems just one big race away from snatching supremacy in the barn. Among those that have flashed potential are Flamenco, already a three-time stakes winner; Harlington, an Unbridled-Serena's Song colt who won his lone start; and Killenaule, a Fusaichi Pegasus colt who already has won four races, including two minor stakes.

McGaughey has two 3-year-olds he is calling possible Derby horses. Both are sons of Danzig: Defer, winner of the Laurel Futurity as an odds-on favorite in November in his third start, and Survivalist, an 8 1/2-length winner of a Belmont maiden race in early October in his last start.

McGaughey said Defer will make his return to action in the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on Feb. 5, the same day as the Holy Bull. He said Survivalist "had a little problem with a splint that I've taken care of" since his maiden victory. "I'm hoping to run him in a one-other-than allowance at the end of January."

Neither Zito nor Frankel nominated any of their 3-year-olds to the series, but that probably doesn't mean much. Horses can be nominated late as the series unfolds, and a third-place or better finish in any of the preliminary races makes a horse automatically eligible to race in the Florida Derby.

Among the other top 3-year-olds scheduled to be here this winter is Straight Line, a runaway winner of the Iroquois at Churchill Downs in early November. Straight Line would have been the favorite for the Kentucky Jockey Club but was sidelined with a serious hock infection.

"It's all gone now," said trainer Harvey Vanier. "We're bringing him down soon from our farm in Versailles [Ky.]. I don't know what race we'll look at. We just want to get him back training good and go from there."

Other potential factors within the local division include Park Avenue Ball, Better Than Bonds, Magna Graduate, and some less accomplished colts that haven't yet had opportunity to show their stuff.