01/28/2005 12:00AM

Kitten's Joy: Young American star

Kitten's Joy wins the Joe Hirsch at Belmont in October, which clinched the turf championship in the mind of his trainer, Dale Romans.

Dale Romans always felt that Kitten's Joy was an exceptional racehorse. But the day that Romans realized he might have a champion was last July 10, when the colt swept to a 2 3/4-length victory in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs.

"I thought that race really set him apart," said Romans, who trains Kitten's Joy for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who bred and own the colt. "The Virginia Derby was when I thought he could be a champion, and the Joe Hirsch was when I thought he clinched it."

With North America lacking an outstanding older turf horse from the start of 2004, circumstances were right for a 3-year-old such as to step into the void. Kitten's Joy, by El Prado out of Kitten's First, had made his first two starts as a 2-year-old on dirt before switching permanently to grass. He reeled off five straight wins, finally losing on June 12 in the Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs.

Then came the Virginia Derby, in which Artie Schiller, who eventually would be the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Mile, finished second, and Prince Arch, who had narrowly defeated Kitten's Joy in the Jefferson Cup, finished third. It was nearly 13 lengths back to the next horse.

"That race was just so impressive," said Romans, a perennial leading trainer in Kentucky. "You could tell that he was something special, a potential champion."

Kitten's Joy then won the Secretariat in sensational fashion, finishing in a faster time than older horses that same afternoon in the Arlington Million. Then came the colt's first try against older rivals: the Joe Hirsch Turf Invitational, Oct. 2 at Belmont, where Kitten's Joy used a devastating turn of foot to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

Kitten's Joy then ran second to longshot Better Talk Now in his season finale, the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup Turf, a race in which he was the odds-on favorite. "That loss was tremendously disappointing," said Romans. "I don't think he really got a chance to show what he is. He didn't get the best of trips that day."

Kitten's Joy is the first Eclipse champion for Romans. "Not bad for a boy from Shively," he said, referring to the blue-collar area of Louisville, Ky., where he grew up learning about racehorses from his father, the late trainer Jerry Romans.

Shortly after the Breeders' Cup, Kitten's Joy underwent surgery to have a knee chip removed. He recently returned to light training at Palm Meadows in south Florida. "The prognosis is very good for him to return to top form," said Romans. "Ideally, his first start back would come in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic" on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 7 at Churchill Downs. "If we can't make that, then maybe the Manhattan at Belmont. The long-range goal is the Breeders' Cup."

Although the most recent 3-year-old turf champion was the European colt High Chapparal in 2002, Kitten's Joy is the first American 3-year-old to win the award since Itsallgreektome in 1990.