08/09/2004 12:00AM

Face it, race for top 3-year-old is over


NEW YORK - The notion that the retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones has opened the door for another 3-year-old to put on a late-season surge and snare a divisional title is nothing short of insane. I don't like the early retirement of Smarty Jones any better than the next guy. But I also realize that I am in no position to command anyone, in this case the owners of Smarty Jones, to turn their backs on millions of dollars.

In any event, the fact is that 17 of the last 18 3-year-olds dating to 1971 who won two of the three Triple Crown events were voted divisional champion. The only exception was 1994 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Tabasco Cat, who was overshadowed on the track and in the Eclipse Award voting by a vastly superior contemporary in Holy Bull. This group includes Funny Cide, who last year was the 10th straight winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to be voted champion 3-year-old, even though, in the minds of everyone who really paid attention, Empire Maker was clearly the better horse.

The scenario this year is completely different. No legitimate argument can be made for any horse in position to mount a late-season threat - not Birdstone, not Sunday's Haskell Invitational winner Lion Heart, not Sunday's Jim Dandy winner Purge, and not Rock Hard Ten in the wake of his flop in the Haskell. None of them is in the same league with Smarty Jones.

Birdstone did deny Smarty Jones the Triple Crown by a length in the Belmont, but few who watched that race could say that Birdstone is even close to being Smarty Jones's equal. And, Birdstone did finish more than 15 lengths behind Smarty Jones in the Derby. Lion Heart was beaten nearly three lengths and 13 1/2 lengths by Smarty Jones in the Derby and Preakness. Lion Heart's victory in the Haskell was far more workmanlike than championlike. Rock Hard Ten, who has ability but is weak on consistency, finished 11 1/2 and 11 lengths behind Smarty Jones in the Preakness and Belmont.

Of course, there is the chance that Smarty Jones could become the victim of some Eclipse Award voter backlash due to anger over his early retirement. There appeared to be some of that last year against Empire Maker. Some voters seemed to be mad at Empire Maker because he retired early, and because he didn't run in the Preakness, although he had no obligation to after finishing second in the Derby. If any of that surfaces again this year, then the whole Eclipse Award voting process should be flushed down the toilet.

What Birdstone, Lion Heart, and perhaps Rock Hard Ten do have to look forward to, and what Smarty Jones will regrettably never get the opportunity to experience, is life beyond the Triple Crown and major racing after the age of 3. A perfect illustration of how special that can be was on display Saturday in Saratoga's Whitney Handicap, won by Roses in May in a display compelling for its tremendous courage.

Roses in May never had the chance to point for the race he is so obviously named for because, according to trainer Dale Romans, he suffered a tendon injury at 2 while a well-regarded member of Todd Pletcher's barn. He finally got his feet wet last year at 3, winning twice and finishing second twice in five starts and has put it all together this season. The Whitney was Roses in May's fourth victory from four starts this year and was his indisputable entrance to the big time.

It's hard to say what the most impressive aspect to Roses in May's score was, because there were several of them. One was the heretofore unseen ability to concede the early lead and perform effectively, but Roses in May did just that by rating early off pacesetter Yessirgeneralsir.

"Yes, that was the plan," Romans said in a telephone interview. "It didn't look like we could run with [Yessirgeneralsir] early and keep on going. We just decided to run like he wasn't in the race."

Another impressive aspect was how Roses in May refused to be outgamed in the stretch by Perfect Drift, for whom the race set up perfectly.

"You have to worry when a horse as good as Perfect Drift hooks you," Romans admitted. "But where I felt okay about it is the other horse worked hard to get up to us, and it didn't look like we were stopping."

No, Roses in May wasn't stopping, and that leads to what may have been the most compelling part of his victory. Despite forcing very fast fractions of 22.64 seconds, 45.25, and 1:08.92, Roses in May held tough. At the same time, you needed a telescope to find the others who were involved in the pace. Peace Rules, third early, wound up a well-beaten sixth. Yessirgeneralsir faded to eighth, and Seattle Fitz, who sat fourth early, finished last of nine.

"You never know what they'll do until they get that gut check," Romans said, reflecting on how well his colt responded to challenges in the Whitney. Now we all know. Roses in May has heart.