12/13/2001 12:00AM

Losing Futurity ain't all bad

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Finally, a reason to pay attention in December. Ignore the results of the Hollywood Futurity at your own risk. This is the race that sets up the West Coast class of 2-year-olds for the following spring, and the winner is usually a horse to be taken seriously.

The Hollywood Futurity has been run 20 times, providing enough statistical grist to draw any number of conclusions. More often than not, the Futurity result validates the performances of horses who have won such races as the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes (Best Pal, Snow Chief, Roving Boy). Winning the Futurity also has provided consolation to horses who ran admirably without winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Point Given, Grand Canyon, River Special).

And then there are the runners who emerge from lesser races with powerful performances in the Futurity (A.P. Indy, King Glorious, Afternoon Deelites), promising great things for the months to come.

A cold fact lingers. Of those 20 winners of the Hollywood Futurity, the lone Derby winner among them was Real Quiet, and even he was a surprise to his owner and trainer on that December day in 1997.

"To be truthful, I was paying more attention to our other horse," said Mike Pegram, Real Quiet's owner, recalling the fate of Johnbill. "Something happened to him early in the race. He got hurt, and that took a little something away from winning with Real Quiet."

There are no guarantees. It takes a good horse to win the Hollywood Futurity, but of the 20 Futurity winners, only half of them made it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs five months later. Temperate Sil, who beat Alysheba to win his Futurity, made the trip to Kentucky but fell sick the week of the race, while A.P. Indy was entered and then scratched when he bruised a hoof.

Of 10 who dared, besides Real Quiet, Best Pal looked like a certain Derby winner in 1991 until Strike the Gold caught him from the far outside in the final yards. Stephan's Odyssey, winner of the Futurity in 1984, gave futile chase to Spend a Buck at Churchill Downs in 1985 but hung tough to take second. The rest - Point Given, Captain Steve, Matty G, Afternoon Deelites, Valiant Nature, Snow Chief, and Fali Time - basically ran for the hot browns.

Those were all very good horses, and most of them went on to greater things. Still, history tells us that it has been better to have the second- or third-best horse in a race like the Hollywood Futurity, with room still to improve, if an owner and trainer want a thrill in the Triple Crown.

Alysheba is in that camp, with his Derby and Preakness wins, and so is Thunder Gulch, second in the 1994 Futurity and then winner of the Derby and Belmont. Dance Floor and Casual Lies ran second and third in the 1991 Hollywood Futurity, then ran third and second in the Kentucky Derby. Desert Wine, second to Roving Boy at Hollywood, was good enough to be second in the Derby and the Preakness.

Few people remember that Gato Del Sol showed up for the 1981 Hollywood Futurity, finished seventh, then resurfaced the following May to win the Derby. And then there was Ferdinand, third to Snow Chief at Hollywood, victorious the following May at Churchill Downs.

The search continues on Saturday with a Futurity field that includes Siphonic and Officer, two of the most promising members of their generation, along with Publication, Mountain Rage, Fonz's, and Yougottawanna. Forgive their people if Derby dreams follow the winner home.

And let's face it. Why else would anyone want to run a Thoroughbred at the age of 2 unless their intention is to participate in the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events a few months down the road?

At 2, even late in the year, the Thoroughbred is still a work in progress, both physically and emotionally. The economics of the game have forced the issue - horses must earn their keep - but in the process, the best aspects of the breed have been compromised by early injury and mental stress.

"I was sitting with Charlie Whittingham and Woody Stephens one day in the backstretch cafeteria," recalled British trainer John Gosden on a recent visit. "I asked them at what age they thought the Thoroughbred was at his optimum stage of development.

"They both wrote a number on a scrap of paper," Gosden went on. "I thought Charlie would say four and Woody probably three. They both wrote the number five."

And they both won the Hollywood Futurity.