01/11/2008 1:00AM

Horses to watch in year ahead


PHOENIX - The imposing shadow of Curlin looms over the handicap division, as he just had his first work and with each passing day appears more likely to grace us with his presence on the stage this year. He and horses like Rags to Riches, Midnight Lute, Daaher, War Pass, and Indian Blessing are obvious ones to keep an eye out for, but there are others lurking in the weeds.

Magnificience: Simply put, her only two races, run at Santa Anita last spring, were as brilliant as anything we saw in 2007. Even her trainer, Bruce Headley, had the audacity to say he knew who would win if there were ever a matchup between Magnificience and Rags to Riches. Sure, Headley may be biased and even wrong, but he doesn't usually go out on a limb with predictions like that.

Everyone was enormously disappointed when Magnificience came up with an ankle chip in her left foreleg that required surgery and sidelined her for the rest of 2007.

The good news is that Headley has kept up an encouraging line regarding her progress, and things got even better when she reappeared on the work tab Dec. 28 at Santa Anita, working three furlongs in 36.80 seconds.

Showing Up: After his tour de force in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby in November 2006, he looked ready to take hold of the turf division in 2007. Things got off well enough: After a nice vacation, he came back in the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland in April, dueled every step, and finished second by a neck. That effort looks even better now when you note that the horse who beat him was Kip Deville, who came back to win the Breeders' Cup Mile.

For Showing Up, though, it was the last time he'd show up in 2007. A suspensory ligament injury sent him to the bench. Trainer Barclay Tagg has had him on a strong work routine the past month or so at Palm Meadows, and he could be targeting Gulfstream's Grade 3 Appleton at a mile on the turf Jan. 27 as a stepping-off point.

Grasshopper: There was never any doubt he was a good horse. How good, however, was the question. Well, he answered that on Aug. 25 last year in Saratoga's Grade 1 Travers when he gave Kentucky Derby hero Street Sense all he could handle, losing to him by a half-length.

That performance sent him to the Grade 1 Super Derby as the heavy favorite, and while he ran well to be second by a length to Going Ballistic, the general consensus was that he didn't show quite the same energy as he had in the Travers. Trainer Neil Howard decided that meant no Breeders' Cup Classic, and he gave Grasshopper time off to grow up and recover.

Well, he's had the time now, and a steady string of works at Fair Grounds shows he's feeling good and close to a return. A race like the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap, at 1 1/16 miles there Feb. 9, could be the spot.

Early look at the Derby

It's never too early to cast an eye toward the first Saturday in May, is it? Here are some very early rankings and thoughts:

War Pass: Deserves top billing, but this is the question: Is he Spend a Buck, who went on to win the 1985 Derby, or Capote, who fizzled as a 3-year-old?

Colonel John: Loved the way he finished in the CashCall Futurity after early trouble. Don't fret about Cushion Track - a good horse can run on anything.

Into Mischief: Looked as if he wanted to beat them in the CashCall. Is he another Lion Heart, who won the Hollywood Futurity and went on to run second in the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby and win the Haskell?

Court Vision: Has won at three different tracks, all in routes, despite trouble. Can anyone else say that?

Cowboy Cal: Gets attention for following Barbaro's path, but that isn't the issue - it's that he's running like Barbaro.

Pyro: Got closest to War Pass in the Breeders' Cup and was closing the gap. But it's not as if he ever looked like he was going catch him, right?

Majestic Warrior: Bred to be any kind and he sure looked good as a powerful winner of the Hopeful. But is that enough to offset his poor Champagne run and then missing the BC Juvenile and Remsen?

Tale of Ekati: Showed professionalism, guts, and handiness when he powered through along the rail to win the Grade 2 Futurity. Still, take away his two Belmont wins and you're left with two modest losses.

Monba: The way he finished in the CashCall seemed to say, "Bring on furlongs nine and 10."

El Gato Malo: Smooth and professional winning in Northern California; not bad for just a second career start and first time routing and shipping.