06/18/2004 12:00AM

Gentleman Count creative bet

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PHOENIX - One of the best things about the Triple Crown is how it coincides with the emergence of new blood, of the next wave. I'm not here to say next year's Kentucky Derby winner is in Sunday's Haggin Stakes at Hollywood Park, or even that the winner will be heard from down the line in bigger juvenile stakes. But it's time to start developing a pecking order out West, and this 5 1/2-furlong race is a decent starting point.

Chandtrue no doubt is the favorite. The colt, from the first crop of top 2-year-old and classy sprinter-miler Yes It's True, was dazzling in two career starts. He romped by over four lengths in his debut at Hollywood April 29, and then came back to win by four again in the Willard Proctor Memorial at Hollywood May 23. Trained by Bob Hess Jr., Chandtrue is reportedly working well and looks like the goods. Trouble is, can you bet him at his prospective odds in the 3-5 range?

You can't. And the nice thing about 2-year-olds is by their nature of inexperience and sudden progression your handicapping can be creative. Handicapping juveniles lends itself to extrapolation and projection.

It takes imagination to select a maiden to defeat a horse like Chandtrue, who is unbeaten in two starts. But anyone who saw Gentleman Count's debut in the Proctor can rationalize that he is a player in the Haggin. And as a maiden defeated by the likely heavy favorite, Gentleman Count figures to be a generous price.

The Proctor was Gentleman Count's first start for trainer Nick Hines, and he might not have been fully cranked. He definitely did not have a good trip. "We knew he'd be a little green, and he was about 70 percent fit," Hines told Daily Racing Form in a story previewing the Haggin. "Now he's 90 percent fit, and in his last work he came home the last quarter in 23.40 [seconds]."

In other words, there's reason to believe Gentleman Count might improve. And he has something to improve on: In the Proctor, he broke slowly, made an early move into contention, was steadied going into the turn, and lost his left front shoe. Still, he held third. Considering all that, and the fact it was his debut, it was an encouraging performance. He must make a significant move forward to close the gap on Chandtrue, but that isn't out of reach - and at high odds it might be worth taking a swing with him.

Is Smarty's party ending too soon?

After initial word that Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones would likely race at 4, came a distressing report this week, when Mike Chapman, son of owners Roy and Pat Chapman, reportedly said that Smarty Jones would likely be retired after this year because of the high cost of insurance.

Most Thor-oughbreds are insured against accident, illness, and disease for between $50,000 and $500,000. Smarty Jones would need that, plus additional fertility coverage, because his stallion deal might bring upward of $30 million. It could put the colt's insurance premium at or above $1 million for the year.

Not only would his retirement at 3 be hugely disappointing for fans, but also a career with only a couple more races this year would leave us wondering about Smarty's place in racing history.

Surely, a Breeders' Cup Classic victory would affirm his tall stature. Even though Secretariat stopped racing after his 3-year-old season, he had defeated older horses a few times. Others, however, left the scene early and remain puzzles. Who can say what would have become of Point Given or Fusaichi Pegasus or Empire Maker had they raced beyond 3?

Also, in some quarters, Smarty Jones's accomplishments are under scrutiny because he supposedly has faced "a weak crop."

But no one can know that a crop is weak or strong until its best run against older horses, and judging any crop of 3-year-olds in June is just too early. Affirmed had a great foil in Alydar, whose own exploits helped validate Affirmed. Yet for all his greatness, can anyone confidently argue that Seattle Slew beat a strong crop? Let's face it, no one is heralding the virtues of such top Seattle Slew rivals as Sanhedrin, Run Dusty Run, and Iron Constitution. At least J.O. Tobin had already been a European champion and would be a U.S. champion at 4, too. Alysheba fans heard similar mutterings, but he sure looks good in retrospect, having defeated Bet Twice, Lost Code, Cryptoclearance, and Gulch, among others. Their achievements at 4 solidified their stature.

Smarty is the most popular horse since Silver Charm, maybe since John Henry. For him not to race next year obviously would have a negative effect on racing, but unless his exploits at year's end elevate his status further, wouldn't the lack of a 4-year-old campaign also hurt his reputation when we think back on him years and years from now?