12/24/2007 12:00AM

Looking for number one

EmailAs we move into 2008, the focus surely will be placed on 3-year-olds all the way through the spring classics. In the meantime, and before the sport's glamour division takes center stage, we should take note of the most accomplished horses still around after last year's Triple Crown as well as the top older horses who will be seen in numerous graded stakes that will attract only modest media attention.

Check that. Should probable 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin actually remain in competition as a 4-year-old in 2008, it is conceivable that he may draw more attention to this division than has been seen since the 1970s when Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed both raced as 4-year-olds in the nation's most important stakes.

Should that be the case, Curlin would loom a most formidable horse to beat, especially in handicap stakes where timid weights are likely to be assigned by modern racing secretaries to entice his participation with a minimum weight penalty.

Should Curlin join the prematurely retired 2007 3-year-old stars Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday as well as last year's now retired top 4-year-olds Lawyer Ron and Corinthian, the new year's so-called "handicap division" will have to be built upon a depleted group of less accomplished runners. The best of these through December 2007 probably are Daaher, Midnight Lute, Student Council, Diamond Stripes, and Tiago, plus the aging 7-year-old gelding Lava Man, the whole horse McCann's Mojave, and the versatile Nobiz Like Shobiz, who has won graded stakes on dirt and turf.

Midnight Lute, a long-striding, dominating winner of the seven-furlong Forego at Saratoga (with a sky-high 124 Beyer Speed Figure) and the six-furlong Breeders' Cup Sprint (108 Beyer) is by 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. This may give him license to stretch out in distance beyond one mile and/or around two turns. But, the jury is still out on Midnight Lute after his late surge was missing when he finished a flat second (with a 109 Beyer) to the improving Daaher in the Cigar Mile on Nov. 24.

Daaher, who will turn 4 in 2008, was a late-season revelation, winning three straight starts to close out 2007, including a runaway score against older rivals in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Saratoga, the Grade 2 Jerome for 3-year-olds at one mile at Belmont in October, and the aforementioned Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

As a Canadian-bred son of 1998 BC Classic winner Awesome Again, Daaher probably ranks as the early favorite to lead this weakened division.

Student Council, who added the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup in September to his surprise victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August, has consistency in his favor with seven in-the-money finishes in nine 2007 starts. But, should he return to competition as a 6-year-old in 2008, Student Council will be a shaky candidate to lead this division having failed to run a Beyer Figure higher than 99 in 23 career starts.

Diamond Stripes, a winner of his first four races through April 2007, was third in his next three - all Grade 1 stakes - before winning the Meadowlands Cup and finishing out of the money behind Corinthian in the BC Dirt Mile. As a gelding, Diamond Stripes is likely to be involved in many graded stakes in 2008. But one has to wonder if there is room for improvement after watching him turn in seven straight Beyer Figures in the good but narrow range of 103 to 107.

Tiago, a useful 3-year-old with a good stretch punch does seem to have some upside after a well-managed campaign that left room for further development.

After winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby against his own age group in his fourth lifetime start and the Grade 1 Goodwood against older horses in his eighth career outing, Tiago enters 2008 as a maturing 4-year-old with the foundation of a lightly raced good horse with Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup experience. That alone places him in a unique category and gives him a chance to improve upon his career top 106 Beyer Figure.

Lava Man, who has never performed well outside of California and yet has won numerous Grade 1 stakes and more than $5 million in his home state, seemed to lose a couple of steps as a 6-year-old in 2007. Fact is, Lava Man finished 2007 with a trio of sixth-place finishes in California to place his racing career at a crossroads entering 2008.

McCann's Mojave, who will be an 8-year-old in 2008, nevertheless acted the part of a much younger horse in 2007 and is being pointed for the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 26. Last year, McCann's Mojave began his rise to prominence by winning that $1 million race when it was held at Gulfstream Park. After minor injuries sent him to the sidelines during the summer, McCann's Mojave returned to form with a popular win in the Grade 3 All American Stakes at Golden Gate Fields on Nov. 17.

Nobiz Like Shobiz, successfully converted to turf in midseason by trainer Barclay Tagg, has options after having won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial and other stakes on dirt in 2006 and 2007. Given the relative weakness of the older horse division as 2008 begins, Tagg might decide to give this son of Albert the Great another shot at Grade 1 stakes on dirt.

The bottom line is the modest credentials of all the leading older horses in training leaves the door wide open for a new list of stars to step forward this winter. That is not only the natural order off things, it is also the underlying principle for insightful handicapping in winter stakes.

Just as many newly turned 3-year-olds inevitably emerge as potential stars by showing sudden improvement in various winter stakes, horseplayers would be wise to look beyond the obvious contenders for horses that may just be finding their best form in the Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps, the Strub series for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita, and, of course, the Santa Anita Handicap in March.