01/15/2007 12:00AM

Let the Derby chatter begin

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NEW YORK - Moments after Hard Spun crossed the wire isolated in front in Saturday's Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, if you listened hard enough, you could almost hear the unmistakable rhythmic banging of hammer to wood. Yes, Hard Spun's Kentucky Derby bandwagon has been built. And given the way he galloped Saturday to post his fourth romp in as many starts, room aboard Hard Spun's Derby bandwagon may be at a premium.

In a sense, it seems a bit strange to talk about a horse this way when the Derby is 4 1/2 months away. So much can happen between now and then, both good and bad. But when you consider that last year's Derby winner, Barbaro, made his first start as a 3-year-old on New Year's Day, it clearly isn't too early to think about Derby prospects now. We certainly don't have to wait until late February or March, typically considered the prime part of the Derby prep season, to see a young horse take significant strides toward success in the Derby.

That seems especially true of a colt like Hard Spun, who has yet to face a challenge. He won the Lecomte by 6 1/2 lengths, the fourth time in as many starts that he has won by a margin between five and nearly nine lengths. After winning two minor stakes at Mid-Atlantic tracks last year, Hard Spun scored his first graded stakes win as well as his first two-turn win in the Lecomte. The Lecomte also marked the first time Hard Spun ran reasonably fast. He earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, which isn't enough to win the Derby but marked a notable improvement over his 2-year-old numbers. That is just the kind of development you want to see between 2-year-old and 3-year-old form, and it represents a good launching pad for advancement. And Hard Spun certainly has a license to develop. His pedigree - he's by Danzig, out of the stakes-winning Turkoman mare Turkish Tryst - suggests he has the genes, at least, to go on to accomplish important things.

Although Hard Spun crossed a few items off his "to prove" list Saturday, it must be noted that he did so without having to overcome what was expected to be a big obstacle. On paper, two of his opponents in the Lecomte - Makeithapencaptain and Teuflesberg - had more than enough early speed to force Hard Spun to come from off the pace for the first time in his life. But they were both taken back right out of the gate, leaving Hard Spun with fairly easy control of the pace. Hard Spun might still have won just as easily, but he must still address the question of whether he can be as effective coming from even slightly off the pace, and he will probably have to do so once the races get better and the competition gets tougher. How he answers that question will go a long way toward deciding whether building that bandwagon was worth the effort.

Add Notional to the list

It's debatable whether a big fan club was instituted for Notional following his victory in Saturday's other notable race for 3-year-olds, the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. After all, Notional is still probably only third string in owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill's arsenal of 3-year-olds, behind Great Hunter, who won the Breeders' Futurity, and Liquidity, who showed dramatic improvement with blinkers on when he lost by a neck in the Hollywood Futurity. But Notional, who was sixth at 5-1 in the Hollywood Futurity, certainly did enough in the San Rafael to be put on anyone's working list of Derby hopefuls.

After Notional drew away in the stretch run of the San Rafael to score by four lengths over pacesetter Tenfold, a flying finish from Grapelli caught the eye. Grapelli, who most recently recorded his maiden win in his fifth attempt, was so far back down the backstretch that it seemed like he was competing in a later race. But he angled out sharply for a clear run turning for home and fell a head shy of Tenfold for second.

Given how fast Grapelli seemed to be motoring at the wire, you might have expected him to get close to Notional on the gallop-out past the wire. The gallop-out is worth looking at in most races, but especially so in Derby preps, where you're looking for horses who demonstrate a desire for more distance. Grapelli didn't get anywhere near Notional during the gallop-out, which tells you one of two things: the horses Grapelli was inhaling in the stretch weren't very good, or Notional was only getting warmed up at the one-mile distance of the San Rafael.