04/25/2005 12:00AM

Gulfstream oozes Derby players


NEW YORK - It was becoming more clear with each passing week of Kentucky Derby prep races, but Coin Silver's emphatic upset of Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland put the exclamation point on it: The 3-year-olds who competed this year at Gulfstream Park were as a group decidedly stronger than their counterparts in other areas of the country.

Despite being eligible to a first-level allowance race, and despite being asked to rate off the pace for the first time this year, Coin Silver crushed a Lexington field that, while not the strongest assembled in a Derby prep this year, did include colts who won stakes this year in New York, New Orleans, and Southern California. He also crushed a colt in Rockport Harbor who not long ago was one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby in future book betting.

But Coin Silver's victory was not nearly as implausible as it might appear on the surface. He was coming out of three solid and competitive performances at Gulfstream, where, according to Coin Silver's trainer, Todd Pletcher, the 3-year-old maiden and basic allowance races are tougher than many stakes races at other tracks. And Coin Silver was the only member of the Lexington field to have wintered at Gulfstream.

So add Coin Silver to this week's final installment for this year's "Derby Watch," as the colt will understandably take his shot at Churchill Downs a week from Saturday. His inclusion brings to nine the number of Kentucky Derby hopefuls who were based in south Florida and raced at least once this year at Gulfstream. The group includes four of the six top-ranked Derby candidates - Bellamy Road, Bandini, High Fly, and Noble Causeway - as well as the still well-regarded Sun King, and a trio of reasonable longshots in Flower Alley, Andromeda's Hero, and Closing Argument.

Where the Gulfstream group has truly demonstrated its strength is in the way many of those horses performed after leaving south Florida. Sun King went on to win the Tampa Bay Derby. Flower Alley went on to win the Lane's End and finish second in the Arkansas Derby. Bellamy Road went on to win the Wood Memorial in an incredible performance that will make him the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Bandini went on to win the Blue Grass. Survivalist, who was withdrawn from Derby consideration Monday, went on to win the Gotham and finish second in the Wood Memorial. And now there is Coin Silver.

Some may counter and ask, Where else would a tough group of Derby aspirants come from if not south Florida? Well, premier candidates for the Derby have been known to come out of New Orleans, Arkansas, Kentucky, and even the inner track at Aqueduct. But the number of truly serious Derby contenders that launched their 3-year-old campaigns in those places this year is a mere two: Afleet Alex and High Limit.

Moreover, Southern California usually produces at least as many top candidates for the Derby as south Florida. But on last week's "Derby Watch," there were only seven that began their 3-year-old campaigns at Santa Anita. Four of them have since started in the eastern half of the country, and how they fared serves to only underscore just how strong the Gulfstream group is. Consolidator came east for the Blue Grass and finished fifth, 13 1/4 lengths behind Bandini. Going Wild came east for the Wood Memorial and finished seventh, 41 lengths behind Bellamy Road. That effort was so awful that he was wheeled back in the Lexington, in which he was fifth, 16 1/4 lengths behind Coin Silver. General John B came east and finished eighth in the Fountain of Youth, 26 lengths behind High Fly. And Spanish Chestnut came east for the Lane's End and was sixth, 9 1/4 lengths behind Flower Alley. He followed with another sixth in the Blue Grass, 13 3/4 lengths behind Bandini.

Although Buzzards Bay began his 2005 campaign at Golden Gate, he did win the Santa Anita Derby. But in between, he came east for the Risen Star and was 10th, beaten 10 1/2 lengths.

The only Southern California-based 3-year-old to accomplish anything meaningful east of Phoenix was Greeley's Galaxy, who won the Illinois Derby. Of course, Greeley's Galaxy must be supplemented to the Kentucky Derby, and will not be able to run if 20 others that are nominated enter.

In any event, the 3-year-olds out of Gulfstream seem to be so strong this year that it even begs handicappers to revisit the issue of the five-week gap between the Florida Derby, in which High Fly and Noble Causeway finished one-two in their final starts before their engagement at Churchill Downs, and the Kentucky Derby. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five weeks or more was Needles 49 years ago. That's a lot of history to overcome, but the evidence suggests that in this instance it may be wise to be flexible rather than dogmatic. Hey, if the Boston Red Sox can win their first World Series in 86 years, anything is possible.