01/20/2003 12:00AM

It could be a very good year


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A vintage season for 3-year-olds?

The top level of 2-year-old racing last year was better than average and the early returns on the 2003 campaign encourage enthusiasm about the quality of racing ahead leading up to the classics.

Saturday's $100,000 Holy Bull Stakes was a rousing exercise, highlighted by a spirited stretch duel between two colts who were relatively obscure but who show considerable promise. The winner was Azalea Stable's 27-1 Offlee Wild, a Wild Again colt who stalked the pacesetting Bham and then won by a head in hand-to-hand combat through the stretch with 9-1 Powerful Touch, owned by the Stronach Stable.

Offlee Wild, who raced three times last year, is trained by T.V. Smith. A top horseman from the Midwest, Smith was at Gulfstream Park four years ago to saddle the 31-1 Grits'n Hard Toast to win the Holy Bull.

"Offlee Wild is a lot better colt," Smith said. "He is exceptionally good, is sound, and smart. He showed quality from the beginning. We'll probably run next in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 15. The competition will probably be tougher, but he has a chance to be better, too."

Lansdon Robbins, a Louisville, Ky., business executive, put together a small syndicate to buy four horses at the September 2001 Keeneland yearling sales. The other three are still maidens, but Offlee Wild, who cost $325,000, has made them all bargains.

Powerful Touch, who battled with Offlee Wild through every step of the final three-sixteenths, won 2 of 3 starts last season. A homebred Touch Gold colt, Powerful Touch is trained by Ken McPeek, who had an exceptional season last year with such talented 3-year-olds as Harlan's Holiday, Repent, and Sarava. Like Offlee Wild, he trained smartly in recent weeks and should be a factor in the Florida Derby scene.

One of the disappointments of the Holy Bull was Added Edge, the 9-5 favorite who won all four of his starts last year. He showed little on Saturday but might have been the victim of a change in the character of the track.

Gulfstream often favors horses with speed like Added Edge. On Saturday, however, it was deeper than usual and tilted toward closers.

Offtrack money should flow to Millions

Scott Savin, president of Gulfstream, doesn't expect a dramatic increase in attendance this weekend for the inaugural running of the Sunshine Millions. He is delighted, however, with the quality of the program, which was drawn Monday, and predicts a notable increase in simulcast wagering, particularly from Santa Anita, which may lure some Super Bowl fans from San Diego.

The Sunshine Millions is a joint venture between the two tracks, Gulfstream and Santa Anita, and the breeders' organizations and horsemen's organizations of Florida and California. Considering how difficult it has been for racing groups to work together in the past, the Sunshine Millions may already be considered a success.

Both tracks will celebrate Saturday's first Sunshine Millions with a program of pageantry, including a patriotic motif. Officials want those attending to have an enjoyable day at the races with an eye to the future of this innovative series.