11/23/2001 12:00AM

Little separates stars of Hollywood Derby


PHOENIX - Handicapping this year's Hollywood Derby isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack - it's like looking for a particular needle in a stack of needles. Where do you start? Seventeen horses are entered, and the gap from front to back is likely to be just a couple lengths. Who is in the best situation? Who's up against it?

The obvious starting point is Bobby Frankel, who sends out four starters - Denon, Aldebaran, Mizzen Mast, and Blue Steller - each solid in his own right. Denon and Aldebaran, coupled as an entry, may well be favored.

Denon brings some serious Euro form to the table. He's a neck shy of being a Group 1 winner in France. His Timeform ratings are biggies - 116, 115, and 116 over the spring and summer. He was beaten less than two lengths in the Group 1 Poule d'Essai de Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) by top European milers Noverre and Vahorimix. The talented multiple Group 1 winner Black Minnaloushe was behind him that day. Of course, Denon has never run in the U.S., but the works are big.

Aldebaran has run in the U.S. once, and it was a beauty. In the Nassau Handicap at Belmont the day after the Breeders' Cup, he sat last early, then rallied to win for fun under wraps, earning a heady 105 Beyer. Soundly defeated were the tough older horses Capsized and Tubrok.

Aldebaran's Timeform ratings in England were a bit behind Denon's, ranging from 108 to 110. Still, Mozart, a multiple Group 1 stakes winner and Europe's top sprinter, only beat him by a neck in June. Aldebaran has only been out of the exacta once, finishing third, in eight starts. He has been beyond a mile only once but still was a good second. The question is, can he ship west, to a different type of course, and fire the same type of shot, or do we see a Lailani-type regression in his second U.S. start?

Mizzen Mast was dazzling winning the Bien Bien, making up for, at least somewhat, his previously less-than-dazzling U.S. form. He came from France with a lofty reputation, Group 1 stakes placings, and Timeform ratings of 112 and 114. He was nowhere as the chalk over the Arlington bog in the Secretariat. No matter, he needed the race. He came back in the Del Mar Derby, dueled up front, then fell apart. Frankel then gave him some time, and two months later when he reemerged in the Bien Bien he stormed home a romping winner, over this course, earning a 103 Beyer. Oh, so that's what they were talking about. Still, does a restricted stakes win mean he's ready to beat his talented stablemates and bunch of other big shots?

Blue Steller is the least accomplished of the Frankel Four, and because of that figures to be the most generous odds. He is not, of course, one to take lightly. He came from France with the reputation as a good horse, though certainly wasn't held in the same regard as his three stablemates. He blasted maidens at Del Mar, then nearly won the Del Mar Derby. When last seen he won the Bay Meadows Derby smartly. He has yet to run as big a race as his teammates but he's still on the upswing and can surely make a big run.

So, as you can see it's a confusing race when just looking at Frankel. It gets even murkier past him. Startac has at times looked like the best of his class on turf. His Secretariat win on a tough course at Arlington was stupendous. However, since then he has changed barns in a highly publicized ownership scuffle and he didn't show the same kind of oomph when he returned in the Oak Tree Derby. In fact, regular rider Alex Solis now ends up on Blue Steller. So which Startac do we get?

The Eastern contingent is obviously good, but there are issues. If you believe Sharp Performance, Baptize, and Navesink are the East's best 3-year-old turf horses, can they beat the top horses from the West , in their own backyard, as well as some solid citizens from Europe? Well, at least Bowman Mill, Indygo Shiner, and Strategic Partner have competed well against the best of the East. Trainer Elliott Walden won this race last year with Brahms (via disqualification), so he knows what it takes as he brings Indygo Shiner here. Indigo Shiner shipped to Del Mar for the Del Mar Derby and was an excellent second, but this Derby looks considerably tougher. Has Indygo Shiner improved since?

Bowman Mill has done nothing wrong in a brief career for the Da Hoss man Mike Dickinson. However, the only time he has faced this caliber he ran into Navesink in the Kent BC at Delaware and was second. There's still plenty of upside here, but there still seems to be a gap between himself and the major players here.

Toss in Homeland, another European who loves to win races and who is on par with Denon and Aldebaran according to Timeform numbers, and Neil Drysdale's underrated Tiger Trap and you can see how your head can end up spinning the more you look at this thing.

In the end, however, we go back to the beginning: Frankel. Aldebaran was monstrous in New York, but has had to ship again. Denon was big in France, but races here for the first time. Mizzen Mast seems to have the edge. He seems to have settled in, found his comfort zone, and responded. His Bien Bien was super and that recent win over the course and reemergence could be the difference.