09/03/2007 12:00AM

Futurity's purpose evolving

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Leandro Mora, top sergeant of the Doug O'Neill troops, was asked if he thought either of the 2-year-old colts representing the stable in the closing-day Del Mar Futurity had a chance to bring home the prize.

Mora smiled. He is nothing if not polite. The colts in question - Good Man Dan and Overextended - are a combined 1 for 7 entering Wednesday's seven-furlong event. As yearlings, Overextended cost $400,000 and Good Man Dan went for $125,000, so it stands to reason that expectations are high. The Futurity, with its total purse of $250,000, seems like a good spot to start whittling away at the debt.

"I'll tell you who are, I think, the horses to beat," Mora began, sneaking up on the issue. "Salute the Sarge has done nothing wrong" - he is unbeaten in three starts "and he won the race here," the Best Pal Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs - "so you've got to respect him.

"I also have respect for Mandella's colt," Mora went on, referring to maiden winner Kanan Dume. "I know he has not run since opening day. But I've watched him train. He reminds me a lot of Thor's Echo."

At this last comment Mora puffed up and flexed his chest in a passable impression of Thor's Echo, the O'Neill stable's 2006 Breeders' Cup Sprint and Eclipse Award winner, who is certainly not a bad role model for any of the 13 young runners entered in the Del Mar Futurity.

In fact, the Thor's Echo career track should be good enough for any horse who steps up to win the Del Mar Futurity these days. There is no use in getting too excited.

There was a time when the race produced winners such as Tomy Lee, Terry's Secret, Ruken, Diabolo, Go West Young Man, Flying Paster, Gato del Sol, Best Pal, and Bertrando, all of them major performers as they aged. However, since the 1991 running won by Bertrando, only Silver Charm (1996) has had a career of significance after his 2-year-old season.

The O'Neill stable has been deeply involved in the last two runnings of the Futurity. Last year, Great Hunter finished second to Horse Greeley (trained by Mandella), while in 2005 O'Neill and owner Merv Griffin took the event with Stevie Wonderboy, eventual champion of the division. Great Hunter won the Robert B. Lewis Memorial Stakes last winter at Santa Anita and made it as far as the Kentucky Derby before going to the sidelines. Stevie Wonderboy ran once at age 3, finished second to Brother Derek, and never raced again.

With a slim lead over Jeff Mullins in the Del Mar standings, O'Neill might need the Futurity to retain his title from 2006. At this stage, Mora is giving a slight edge to Good Man Dan to carry the day.

"You've got to give them both a shot," Mora said as he led a visitor down the shed row, stopping first at the stall of Overextended, a narrow, dark roan son of Monarchos who has run well against Futurity opponents Drill Down, E Z's Gentleman, and Salute the Sarge.

"He is still like a child," Mora said. "He has ability, but he doesn't focus his attention like he needs to. In his last race, Nakatani took a little hold after the break, and he dropped way back, just overreacted, then came on late with a pretty good run."

Overextended was standing still as a statue in the center of his stall, praying these people would go away.

"He was tough when he first came to us," Mora noted as groom Polo Alvarado worked nearby. "He thought he was a real killer. He broke a hotwalker's leg at Hollywood Park. One day he went up in his stall and got his leg caught over the wall. But Polo's done a great job calming him down."

Around the corner, the handsome chestnut Good Man Dan was at the front of his stall, begging for attention. The lower half of his nose is white, complimented by a small white star between his eyes. He won his last start by five lengths.

"He's a much different-bodied horse, more muscular," Mora pointed out. "He has been improving faster than the other colt, which doesn't mean they won't end up on the same level. It's just that this horse takes his job more seriously, just like some kids are different as they grow up."

Which is why a 2-year-old race on the first Wednesday in September, no matter what is at stake, is hard to take seriously beyond the most immediate implications. In recent seasons, the Del Mar Futurity banner has been carried forward by noble losers far more often than its winners. Third-place Timber Country won a Preakness. Fourth-place Commendable a Belmont. Third-place Cavonnier took a Santa Anita Derby, while Dixie Union and Roman Ruler, both Futurity seconds, bagged Haskells. Even the world's richest race has been affected - Futurity third Captain Steve and Futurity runner Street Cry both won Dubai World Cups.

Mora did not need to hear such historical trivia. He already knew the score.

"You can break your head trying to do things to make them grow up faster, but in the end they do it on their own schedule," Mora said. "The horse who finishes sixth on Wednesday could end up winning the Kentucky Derby."