11/15/2004 1:00AM

Hollywood Futurity can decide 2-year-old male championship


NEW YORK - Things were supposed to be very different this year from last regarding the fallout from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Instead, we find ourselves in a similarly unsatisfying situation, with a 2-year-old male division that is uninspiring and in disarray.

The 2003 Juvenile, you may recall, was the worst in Breeders' Cup history. That race lacked the winner of the Champagne in Birdstone, the winner of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity in Eurosilver, and the winner of the Norfolk in Ruler's Court.

Ruler's Court's absence was especially ridiculous. With the view that no Juvenile winner had gone on to success in the Kentucky Derby, Ruler's Court was actually kept out of this race to advance his Derby chances. This would have been merely amusing if it wasn't for the fact that Ruler's Court was owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, which meant that Ruler's Court was going to prep for the Derby in Dubai. We all know how tremendously successful that route has been, which is to say it has been a profound flop. And, predictably, once Ruler's Court went to Dubai, he fell into a black hole. So, instead of running in a Breeders' Cup race he probably would have won, Ruler's Court was kept in the barn.

In the absence of Birdstone, Eurosilver, and Ruler's Court, the 2003 Juvenile was nothing more than a glorified allowance race. The only truly top horses were Chapel Royal and Cuvee, but both had serious distance limitations. As expected, the result was less than compelling.

Benefiting from an insanely fast early pace, Action This Day plugged along and picked up all the pieces at 26-1. Yet, despite the fact that Action This Day's winning performance was decidedly inferior in terms of both running time and degree of difficulty to Halfbridled's victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies earlier in the card, and despite a late-season surge by Lion Heart, the influence of the Breeders' Cup carried Action This Day to a divisional championship. For the record, I voted for Birdstone. I thought the Champagne he won was the strongest 2-year-old race of the year.

The complexion of this year's Juvenile was entirely different. Even though it had its smallest field ever with only eight starters, the Juvenile had all the horses it was supposed to have, save Del Mar Futurity winner Declan's Moon. It had the first three finishers from a seemingly strong Champagne in Proud Accolade, Afleet Alex, and Sun King. It had the dominant Norfolk winner in Roman Ruler, and it had the decisive Lane's End Breeders' Futurity winner Consolidator. The Juvenile had almost all the right horses, only to see the unheralded shipper from England Wilko pull an Action This Day and beat them all at 28-1.

Despite the immense impact a victory in the Juvenile has on the voting for champion 2-year-old male - which was never better illustrated than by the events of last year - no one seems eager to give the title to Wilko. Just like Action This Day, Wilko's Juvenile was run in slower time than the Juvenile Fillies, which this year was won by Sweet Catomine. Moreover, Wilko went into the Juvenile with a record of only 2 for 10 in England, both victories coming in mere novice stakes at Yarmouth. Not even a Breeders' Cup win can make a colt who has lost 8 of his 11 starts an appealing candidate for a championship.

The good news is, Wilko can become an easier pill to swallow if he wins the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 18.

Wilko is supposed to run in that race, as is Declan's Moon, who will prep for it in Saturday's Hollywood Prevue Stakes; Proud Accolade; and perhaps even Roman Ruler, who underwent surgery to remove an undescended testicle after his disappointing fifth as the favorite in the Juvenile. If Wilko beats Proud Accolade and Roman Ruler again, as well as Declan's Moon, his case for a divisional title would be substantially stronger. But, if either Declan's Moon, Proud Accolade, or Roman Ruler wins the Hollywood Futurity, his case for a championship would be just about as strong. And if all of them are upset by some 30-1 shot, then Wilko will really put the influence of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to the Action This Day test.

Of course, it is fair to ask whether working up a sweat over this is worth it. It seems that major 2-year-old male racing has become almost meaningless, and is increasingly disconnected from 3-year-old form. Of the last 15 2-year-old male champions, only one went on to accomplish something truly meaningful at 3. That was Timber Country, who after winning a championship in 1994, came back in 1995 to win the Preakness, which turned out to be his last start. Of the other 14, only two went on to win a Grade 1 event at 3, and you have to go back to find them. Rhythm, champion 2-year-old male in 1989, won the 1990 Travers. Fly So Free, a divisional champ in 1990, won the 1991 Florida Derby.

That is incredible.