Updated on 09/17/2011 9:10PM

Head and withers above rest


WASHINGTON - As the horses entered the starting gate Saturday for the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, they were judged to be like all the other 3-year-olds who have contested prep races in the last few months. They weren't fast; they lacked star quality; they didn't have the talent usually required of a would-be Kentucky Derby winner.

And then, in the space of 1:47.16, the outlook for the 2005 classics changed abruptly.

Instead of deploring the quality of the current generation of 3-year-olds, racing fans were wondering if there was a genuine superstar in their midst - possibly even a Triple Crown winner. Bellamy Road's victory in the Wood was one of the most stunning and authoritative performances ever delivered in a prep race for the Kentucky Derby. The colt went immediately to the lead in the Wood, set an honest pace, and led by some two lengths leaving the backstretch. Then he went into overdrive, pulling away from his six rivals to win by 17 1/2 lengths, running the fastest Wood in history and equaling the track record held by Riva Ridge.

Although the Aqueduct racing strip was producing quick times all day, Bellamy Road's fast time was not an aberration. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 120 - the best performance in a Derby prep race since these numbers began appearing in print in 1991. It was better than the winning figure in any Triple Crown race during this period. And it was better than any horse of any age has earned in the United States this year.

Trainer Nick Zito understood the significance of the final time. Although he hastens to point out that Bellamy Road still has plenty to prove, he said: "I know this horse is part of history. I've been at Aqueduct watching the Wood Memorial since I was a kid, and to break the record in the Wood . . . that's one of the best performances at Aqueduct ever."

Zito knows that his colt has moved into a special class by running the Wood faster than legendary Thoroughbreds such as Easy Goer, Seattle Slew, Damascus, and Bold Ruler. This is a giant leap in status for a colt rated the fourth-stringer in Zito's barn before Saturday. The trainer's powerful stable also includes erstwhile Kentucky Derby favorite Sun King, plus High Fly and Noble Causeway, the one-two finishers in the Florida Derby. Those three were all proven stakes horses, while Bellamy Road was an unknown quantity before Saturday.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner bought the colt for $87,000 as a 2-year-old and put him into the care of Maryland-based trainer Michael Dickinson, for whom Bellamy Road won his first two starts with authority. He looked so promising that he was made the favorite in a Grade 1 stakes at Keeneland. When he faded and finished seventh, Dickinson chose to rest him for the rest of the year and await his 3-year-old campaign.

However, this is an owner who has been known to change managers, and Dickinson's farm unexpectedly received a phone call informing them that a van would be arriving to take Bellamy Road. The colt went to Zito in Florida.

"He worked sensationally," Zito said, and when Zito entered him in a modest allowance race, Bellamy Road ran away with it by 15 3/4 lengths. Still, nobody was hailing him as a star for winning in a five-horse field.

But after the Wood, he sports a 3-year-old record of two wins by a combined total of 33 1/4 lengths, and those credentials made him the solid favorite in the latest round of future wagering on the Derby. Still, Zito is properly cautious, and he understands that skeptics can reasonably raise several questions about Bellamy Road.

* Does he have enough preparation? Only one horse in the last 58 years has won the Derby with the benefit of only two prep races as a 3-year-old.

* Will he bounce? It is an article of faith among many modern handicappers that a horse who has run an extraordinarily fast race like the Wood will regress in his next start.

* Can he take pressure? Bellamy Road has scored his victories by leading all the way, but he probably won't have that advantage in a typical, speed-filled 20-horse Derby field. Under such circumstances, superior speed horses are often the victims of an insane early pace.

This issue is the one that concerns Zito most. When he was asked if he thought Bellamy Road was a potential Triple Crown winner, he deflected the question, noting that too many unforeseeable things can happen in the cavalry charge at Churchill Downs.

"The Derby is a completely different animal," he said. "But if he wins the Derby . . ."

Then, he said, speculating about a Triple Crown might not be so far-fetched. It's not utterly far-fetched now; based on the limited evidence of the Wood Memorial, no horse in years has gone into the 3-year-old classics with such an advantage in raw talent over the rest of his generation.

(c) The Washington Post, 2005