01/01/2009 12:00AM

Florida 3-year-old ranks a bit thin

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BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - The cupboard is not necessarily bare, but the prospect of yet another Kentucky Derby winner coming from south Florida doesn't look particularly bright. The results of several major divisional races last year, most notably the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, have left the Florida contingent appearing somewhat lacking, although that prognosis is always subject to change.

Remarkably, four of the last six Derby winners, including the last three in a row, have come from south Florida: Funny Cide (2003), Barbaro (2006), Street Sense (2007), and Big Brown (2008). All were based at the Palm Meadows training center, located just outside of Boynton Beach, about an hour north of Gulfstream Park, where the 2009 meet begins Saturday.

While the first two substantive Derby preps at Gulfstream will not be run until the final weekend of January - the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes goes Jan. 30, and the 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull Stakes is the following day - the roster of 3-year-olds in position to achieve early local prominence is lengthy.

From a broader perspective, the most intense focus on the 3-year-old picture this winter surely will be on Dubai, where several of the top Derby candidates will be based with the Godolphin/Darley powerhouse, most notably Midshipman, the BC Juvenile winner, and Vineyard Haven, the Champagne Stakes winner purchased from Bobby Frankel. At least three other live candidates also will train there: Coronet of a Baron, Desert Party, and Girolamo. Meanwhile, on this side of the ocean, other viable prospects are based in Southern California, New York, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

The Florida contingent seems to have a lot of catching up to do before the 135th Kentucky Derby is run May 2 at Churchill Downs.

The early leader in the Florida clubhouse might well be the Calder-based Big Drama, winner of the $750,000 Delta Jackpot in Louisiana last month and a winner in 5 of 6 starts. However, Big Drama, trained by David Fawkes for owner-breeder Harold Queen, has a sprinter's pedigree - the colt is by Montbrook out of a Notebook mare - and he will have more than his share of skeptics as the competition gets deeper and the races get longer.

Otherwise, these are some names to round out a highly unofficial Florida top 10: Atomic Rain, Beethoven, Break Water Edison, Capt. Candyman Can, Charitable Man, Rocketing Returns, Silent Valor, West Side Bernie, and Well Positioned.

Perennial Derby trainers Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher have just one prospect apiece on the list in Rocketing Returns and Silent Valor, respectively, while the relatively unknown Kelly Breen has two in Atomic Rain and West Side Bernie.

"Having two 3-year-olds like them sure does make it easier to get up in the morning," said Breen, a 39-year-old New Jersey native whose entire 20-horse stable at Palm Meadows is owned by George and Lori Hall of New York City. "It really energizes you."

Atomic Rain, by Smart Strike, finished second by 7 1/4 lengths to Old Fashioned in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct in just his third start "and really has room for improvement off that," said Breen.

West Side Bernie, by Bernstein, finished second by a length to Big Drama in the Dec. 5 Delta Jackpot after finishing sixth in the Oct. 25 BC Juvenile and winning the Kentucky Cup Juvenile before that.

From Kentucky, the most accomplished prospects training in south Florida are Beethoven and Capt. Candyman Can, the one-three finishers in the Nov. 29 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill. Both are with Derby-proven connections: John T. Ward, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos, is the trainer of Beethoven, while Ian Wilkes, who has had a role in Derby victories by Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007) while closely affiliated with Carl Nafzger, is the trainer of Capt. Candyman Can.

From New York, Break Water Edison shows a busy recent work pattern at Payson Park since winning his last race, the Nov. 2 Nashua at Aqueduct for John Kimmel; Charitable Man, winner of the Futurity at Belmont Park in his last start in September, is scheduled to be assimilated soon from Ocala into the Kiaran McLaughlin string at Palm Meadows; and Well Positioned, a romping maiden winner at Aqueduct in November, has settled into Gulfstream for owner Paul Pompa Jr. and trainer Pat Reynolds, the same connections that originally had Big Brown.

Of course, as the Gulfstream meet unfolds, there will be plenty of maiden and allowance races to reveal other promising 3-year-olds.

"If I had to guess, something new will come around," said Zito.

Among the many possible sleepers are a pair of McLaughlin horses, A.P. Cardinal and Mr. Fantasy, as well as Nicanor, an unraced full brother to Barbaro whose Palm Meadows work pattern suggests he is close to his debut for owner-breeder Lael Stables and trainer Michael Matz.

After the Hutcheson and Holy Bull, the remaining major 3-year-old stakes at Gulfstream are the one-mile Fountain of Youth on Feb. 28 and the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby on March 28. Of lesser consideration is the seven-furlong Swale on the Florida Derby undercard. Two graded races at Tampa Bay Downs, the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 14 and Tampa Bay Derby on on March 14, have evolved into useful alternatives for south Florida horsemen.