03/08/2010 12:00AM

Gotham, Sham can't be discounted


NEW YORK - It's tempting to be skeptical about last Saturday's 3-year-old races and whether they held any real meaning for the Kentucky Derby picture.

The weather in New York may have taken a turn for the better, but the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct still had a dead-of-winter feel to it because not one of the 10 starters was a graded stakes winner.

The same was true of the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. There were 10 starters, none a graded stakes winner. And Santa Anita's Pasadena Stakes? Only a loose definition of the term could classify it as a stop on the way to the Kentucky Derby. After all, it was run on turf.

But there is a gut feeling that says to not be so harsh in judgment. No one is suggesting that we saw the Kentucky Derby winner Saturday. Not yet, anyway. Still, the winners just might prove to be good racehorses.

There were a few things to like about the way Awesome Act won the Gotham. For one, he was sharp in his first career encounter with dirt and first start since his fast-closing fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, despite making the long ship from England. The way the Gotham unfolded, and the way he was traveling, it was obvious early on that Awesome Act was going to win. This was not unexpected. His class lines and dirt-oriented pedigree combined to make him the favorite. But by the top of the stretch, the only question was by how much. The way Awesome Act took control in upper stretch, it looked like he might win by a lot, so it could be a source of disappointment that he scored by only a little more than a length. This, however, was a well-measured victory, one that left plenty in Awesome Act's tank while also being a performance he can improve on.

Alphie's Bet also offered some things to like with his strong, if unforeseen, victory in the Sham. Alphie's Bet had shown improvement in his last couple of starts, finishing a rallying second while still a maiden in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes to the undefeated Caracortado, whose subsequent victory in the Robert Lewis established him as an upper-tier Kentucky Derby candidate. And then, in his first start in blinkers, Alphie's Bet produced a strong finish into a slow pace to get his maiden win. But on Saturday, in his first start outside statebred ranks, Alphie's Bet took his game to an entirely different level. Despite being wide all the way, he produced an eye-catching late burst of speed that soundly beaten runner-up Setsuko, a pretty good finisher himself, couldn't match.

One race before the Sham, Alphie's Bet's barnmate Make Music for Me unleashed a strong finish of his own in his first start of the year in the Pasadena to beat the odds-on Macias. Before the Pasadena, Make Music for Me's candidacy for the Kentucky Derby caused a snicker or two because he was still a maiden who just happened to have a good bit of graded stakes earnings thanks to on-the-board finishes last year in races like the CashCall Futurity, Del Mar Futurity, and Best Pal Stakes. Well, Make Music for Me is a maiden no more, and no one should be laughing now. Macias, who was losing for the first time on turf, set the pace in the Pasadena. And though Macias wasn't stopping in the stretch - in fact, the final quarter-mile of the Pasadena of 23.50 was the fastest quarter-mile of the race - Make Music for Me, who had never run on turf, made him look like he was stopping with the way he inhaled him. Suddenly, Make Music for Me's three starts last year against Lookin At Lucky - where he was beaten only three-quarters of a length, one length, and 1 1/4 lengths - can be viewed in an entirely different light.

Other weekend stakes impressions:

I had my doubts about Misremembered at the 1 1/4-mile distance in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, but he deserves full credit for a victory that was not cheaply won. Misremembered was closest early to a strong pace set by Mast Track, who wound up last of 14. And in deep stretch, when it looked like Neko Bay was going to catch him, Misremembered found enough, despite the energy he expended early. There is high quality in the handicap division this year, but it is concentrated at the top. That means there will be plenty of opportunity this season for a horse like Misremembered.

It looks like Juddmonte Farms has in Proviso a replacement for the retired Ventura. In fact, as top class as Ventura was, Proviso on Saturday was able to do something that Ventura could not do - beat males in the Kilroe Mile. Proviso got her nose up over Fluke, whereas Ventura fell a nose short in last year's Kilroe Mile. Of course, it should be noted that the horse who nipped Ventura in the Kilroe Mile was Gio Ponti, who went on to win the older male and turf male Eclipse Awards. It also should be noted that Ventura was trained in this country by the late Bobby Frankel. Frankel also trained Proviso and Fluke in this country before he died last fall.

We've had some highly entertaining sprint stakes already this year, and Saturday's Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct was another one as Wall Street Wonder edged the razor-sharp Florida shipper Custom for Carlos after a race-long duel. Wall Street Wonder has been a revelation since hitting Aqueduct's inner track, winning all three of his starts, including a particularly fast Paumonok Stakes. It will be interesting to see if Wall Street Wonder's emergence is inner track-related, or if he is simply much improved.