03/03/2005 12:00AM

'Leroid' best horse in best race

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - This is the time of year when the 3-year-olds get virtually all of the national attention, and Saturday is the first big day on the Triple Crown trail. The juvenile champion, Declan's Moon, makes his 2005 debut in Santa Anita's . The runner-up in the voting, Afleet Alex, thought to be targeting the Rebel Stakes for his return two weeks from now, was instead a surprise entrant in Oaklawn Park's Mountain Valley Stakes. And the unbeaten Lost in the Fog, dubbed "America's most exciting horse" by Andy Beyer in a Daily Racing Form front-page story Feb. 3, can earn a late nomination to the Triple Crown if, as expected, he produces another impressive outing in the Swale Stakes.

The Swale is one of five Grade 2 stakes on a star-studded Gulfstream Park card that also includes the Fountain of Youth, the Bonnie Miss, and the Forward Gal. The Forward Gal is headlined by Maddalena, an unbeaten young filly who just oozes potential.

Spring is just around the corner, and Derby fever may be in the air, so it's a bit of a shame that two of Santa Anita's major races for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap, are also scheduled for Saturday. It's 1-5 they will be thoroughly overshadowed in terms of media coverage, because the "buzz" will center on what the aspiring 3-year-olds of both sexes do or don't do.

Of the two Santa Anita races, which make up two legs of a $1 million guaranteed pick six on the Santa Anita program, one might assume that the Big Cap has the more talented field. But in terms of actual accomplishments on the racetrack, the Kilroe outshines the Big Cap, and it's not even close. Pound for pound and horse for horse, the Kilroe field is the strongest assembled at any racetrack in the world, turf or dirt, so far this season. Again, it's not close.

To be sure, the Big Cap has a bonafide standout in Saint Liam, who is arguably the world's second-best dirt horse, behind Ghostzapper. But of 11 horses in the Big Cap, Saint Liam is the only Grade 1 route winner. The main point of interest will be seeing whether Rock Hard Ten can step up and build on his narrow comeback wins in the Malibu and the Strub.

Now consider the Kilroe, a mile on turf, where seven - seven - of the 10 entrants are Grade 1 winners - eight, if you count the import Romeo Plus, a Group 1 winner on turf and dirt in his native Argentina. The two exceptions are Night Patrol, a winner of well over $800,000 in his career, and Buckland Manor, a Grade 2-placed veteran who finished a nose in front of Breeders' Cup Mile winner Singletary in the Oak Tree Mile last fall and who hasn't run a sub-100 Beyer Speed Figure on turf since 2003.

The impressive lineup includes defending champ Sweet Return, who broke from post 14 last year and edged Singletary by a half-length.

Singletary, of course, went on to win the Breeders' Cup Mile at 16-1 in his final start of 2004, in what some seasoned observers regarded as the finest ride of jockey David Flores' career.

Right off, the presence of Singletary makes the Kilroe a good betting race. He had a perfect trip in the Breeders' Cup Mile, he is giving weight, and it has been well documented that Cup winners (and close-up finishers) tend to disappoint in their next start.

The presence of Leroidesanimaux also makes the Kilroe a potentially good betting race, because he is quite possibly the best turf horse in the nation, and virtually no one even knows how to pronounce his name. For what it's worth, this Brazilian import was my second choice in the Eclipse voting behind Kitten's Joy, after closing out his 4-year-old season with five straight wins.

Leroidesanimaux's last three wins came in graded stakes, and seldom will you see such a display of talent and versatility. The particulars of the three wins, which earned Beyer Speed Figures of 111, 111, and 112, are:

May 1: Racing 1 1/16 miles for the first time, in the Inglewood Handicap, he set a pressured pace, edged clear after running a third quarter in 22.80 seconds, and widened to win by two lengths in 1:38.45, breaking a six-year-old record on the Hollywood turf course.

Oct. 30: After nearly six months off, he returned on Santa Anita's tricky downhill course at 6 1/2 furlongs and came from off the pace to win the Morvich Handicap in a clocking just three ticks off the course record. Different distance, different course, different running style than the Inglewood.

Nov. 27: Back to Hollywood and 1 1/16 miles for the Grade 1 Citation Handicap, this time stalking the pace, Leroidesanimaux took the lead into the stretch and held on.

Three stakes races, three stakes wins, and he took the lead at a different point each time.

That is what you call a racehorse, and that is what makes him the one to beat in the saltiest race of the young season.