11/04/2003 12:00AM

Eclipse chase a five-way race

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LAS VEGAS - As soon as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was over, the debate over this year's muddled 2-year-old championship and next year's Kentucky Derby began.

Before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the 2-year-old championship had come down to Cuvee, Chapel Royal, Silver Wagon, Eurosilver, Birdstone, and Ruler's Court. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile eliminated the hopes of Cuvee and Chapel Royal and elevated BC Juvenile winner Action This Day. Thus, the top candidates for an Eclipse award come down to five colts who won only one stakes each: Action This Day, Birdstone, Eurosilver, Ruler's Court, and Silver Wagon.

Silver Wagon

Second in his debut at Calder in June, Silver Wagon trounced Eurosilver by 7 1/2 lengths in a Saratoga maiden race despite being bumped at the start. Silver Wagon followed that score with a victory over Chapel Royal in the Hopeful Stakes, his lone stakes victory.

Immediately after the Hopeful, trainer Ralph Ziadie said he did not want to run Silver Wagon in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

From the first crop of Wagon Limit (by Conquistador Cielo) and out of a mare from a modest female family who is by speed influence Darn That Alarm, Silver Wagon may find the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles a furlong too far.

Eurosilver

Eurosilver won two of three starts, including the Breeders' Futurity. His only loss was in his debut, when he was decisively beaten by Silver Wagon.

Eurosilver is by 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Unbridled's Song, who has been more of a brilliant (speed) influence than a source of stamina like his sire, Unbridled. But Eurosilver is out of a mare by Nijinsky II, and his second dam is Brave Raj, who captured the 1986 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies en route to a championship. If Eurosilver looks as good at nine-furlong Derby preps next year as he has at 1 1/16 miles, Nick Zito may have another Kentucky Derby winner.

Birdstone

Since Zito is not known as a first-time out trainer, it is noteworthy when one of his 2-year-olds wins a debut. But when Zito's 2-year-olds do perform well early, such as Diligence and Acceptable, they usually go on to become stakes winners. Birdstone won his debut by 12 1/2 lengths at Saratoga (similar to Diligence, who won his maiden race by 11 lengths at Saratoga) and then finished fourth, beaten 6 1/2 lengths by Silver Wagon in the Hopeful Stakes. Birdstone redeemed that loss with a solid victory in the Champagne Stakes, but like Silver Wagon and Eurosilver passed on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Birdstone is by 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone and is a half-brother to Bird Town, winner of this year's Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes and second to Sightseek in the Beldame Stakes. Like Unbridled's Song, Grindstone is a son of Unbridled, but his runners have shown more speed than stamina. But Birdstone comes from a special female family full of classic influences cultivated by C.V. Whitney, and if he is to be effective at 1 1/4 miles, his Derby preps next year will tell the tale.

Ruler's Court

Ruler's Court also won only one stakes - the Norfolk - and since the win came over the same track and distance as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his defection from the Juvenile was the most shocking. A victory in the Juvenile would have clinched a championship for Ruler's Court, but his connections decided instead to ship him to Dubai and get him ready for next year's Derby. Unfortunately, Ruler's Court had a better chance for a 2-year-old championship than a win in the Kentucky Derby.

Ruler's Court is by Doneraile Court, one of this year's best freshman sires. While some sons of Seattle Slew are bred for distance (A.P. Indy, Slew o' Gold, Swale) others, like Doneraile Court, are speed influences (Capote, Houston, General Meeting). Doneraile Court was competitive in stakes races at middle distances, but Ruler's Court gets more speed from his damsire, Copelan.

Action This Day

And then there is Action This Day. While many dismiss him for his light Beyer Speed Figure in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Juvenile's depleted field, Action This Day's last-to-first run was reminiscent of another 2-year-old champion, Anees, in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Anees, bred to run all day, took advantage of his over-hyped competition, which comprised mostly sprinters.

In my Breeders' Cup Day column this year, I selected Tiger Hunt (4th), Minister Eric (2nd) and Action This Day (1st) as the colts most likely to be effective at 1 1/16 miles. Tiger Hunt just missed catching a weary Chapel Royal (3rd) by a nose.

So, Birdstone (Champagne), Eurosilver (Breeders' Futurity), Ruler's Court (Norfolk), and Silver Wagon (Hopeful) each won one major stakes. But they skipped the Breeders' Cup Juvenile when the championship was obviously on the line and do not deserve an award. Action This Day (by Kris S. out of a Trempolino mare) also won only one stakes, but it was the most important juvenile stakes of all. As for the Kentucky Derby, Action This Day just happens to be better bred than the other four to get 1 1/4 miles next May.