01/01/2007 12:00AM

A hothouse for talent to bloom

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BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - Palm Meadows is where Barbaro and Bernardini trained last year on their way to superstardom. That pretty much says it all about how the 1 1/8-mile training center, now in its fifth year of operation, is the flash point for a winter circuit that frequently is a fertile spawning ground for top 3-year-olds.

Indeed, horses based in south Florida last winter went on to dominate the top 3-year-old races of 2006, with Barbaro winning the Kentucky Derby and Bernardini accomplishing enough afterward to merit heavy favoritism for divisional honors. Whether the 3-year-olds who are starting out 2007 in south Florida can be similarly dominant remains to be seen, but with some of the best 2-year-olds of 2006 having ventured here for the winter, the potential clearly exists.

Any list of major prospects for the 134th Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs must start with Street Sense, the Carl Nafzger-trained colt who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a record 10 lengths. While Nafzger loves to play devil's advocate and surely will try to have some fun with discussions that will focus on the famed Breeders' Cup jinx - no Juvenile winner has ever won the Derby the following year - he will devote more serious attention to the business at hand, and that is getting Street Sense to develop and mature at a pace Nafzger believes will have the colt at his peak on May 5.

The first major goal for Street Sense is the Blue Grass Stakes on April 14 at Keeneland, said Nafzger.

"What races we use to get there, it doesn't really matter," he said. "All I want is to have him ready to run a big race at Keeneland, and then an even bigger one on Derby Day."

Nafzger and his longtime assistant Ian Wilkes have been pleased with how Street Sense has fared since the Breeders' Cup.

"We actually trained him some at Churchill following the Breeders' Cup," Wilkes said last week at Palm Meadows. "But we were also kind of letting him down, giving him time to grow up. I really believe he's bigger and stronger now. He's been laying down a lot lately, which I think is a good sign.

"We've just kind of been training him intermittently down here, walking him under tack or just by hand, kind of changing things up for him day-to-day so he doesn't get too bored. Pretty soon we'll be taking him back to the track every day for gallops, then obviously get him back to breezing as we focus in on a race Carl picks out."

Neither Nafzger nor Wilkes would say whether the return of Street Sense will come in the March 31 Florida Derby or in one of the earlier Gulfstream preps. The series starts Sunday with the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes and winds through two key dates - the Swale and Holy Bull on Feb. 3, and the Hutcheson and Fountain of Youth on March 5 - before culminating with the $1 million Florida Derby.

Besides Street Sense, there is the usual wide assortment of major 3-year-old prospects stabled here in south Florida - and to no one's surprise, many of those horses are trained by Todd Pletcher, who on Feb. 1 will reassume control of his stable after serving out a 45-day suspension for a medication violation.

Of the 149 early nominees to the Florida Derby series, Pletcher is the trainer of 17 of them, including Circular Quay, winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful and runner-up in the BC Juvenile; Scat Daddy, winner of the Grade 1 Champagne; and Any Given Saturday, runner-up to Tiz Wonderful in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Pletcher also has an array of highly promising colts who would seem to be just one big race from prominence, including Out of Gwedda, Sam P., and Soaring By.

Leading the non-Pletcher faction of south Florida-based 3-year-olds is Nobiz Like Shobiz, the Barclay Tagg-trained colt who was a romping winner of the Grade 2 Remsen in his last start. A lengthy list of other notables and potential sleepers includes Drums of Thunder, Elusive Value, Green Vegas, Longley, Marchfield, Power of Freedom, Reata's Rocket, Straight Faced, Torini, and Touchdown Peyton.

Another handful of viable prospects, including Tiz Wonderful, Belgravia, and Unbridled Express, are not based in south Florida but were still nominated by their connections to the Florida Derby series.