06/14/2002 12:00AM

Never too early to start considering next year's Derby


PHOENIX - The days following the first Saturday in May might seem quiet or anticlimactic to some.

That couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, for handicappers the ink is barely dry on the Kentucky Derby result chart when they start looking a year ahead. As Bob Baffert put it after his War Emblem lost the Belmont, "It's time to reload and try and come back next year."

For the most part, the early juvenile racing season is replete with runners boasting pedigrees and conformation heavily tilted toward speed. That's nobody's fault - early 2-year-old racing ranges anywhere from two furlongs to five furlongs. But once we hit full stride on the Triple Crown trail, the juvenile picture changes, too. Horses with pedigrees suggesting more versatility, maybe even more promise and class, begin emerging. As a rule, D. Wayne Lukas's most promising

2-year-olds come out in May or early June. Baffert starts unveiling his about now or early in the Del Mar season.

So it's no stunner that there are those who have already whetted our appetite, sending thoughts ahead to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and beyond. Here are a couple of recent Hollywood maiden winners who bear watching as the furlongs, money, and ramifications increase.

Gentlemen's Club

Not only does Gentlemen's Club look like his wonderful sire, Gentlemen, but he also runs like him. A Richard Mandella trainee, Gentlemen's Club won at first asking Sunday in a five-furlong maiden race. Under Alex Solis, he stopped the timer in 59 seconds, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 73.

"I thought five furlongs would be too short for him, and I was worried about the one hole, but he ran good," Mandella said. "The Hollywood Juvenile Championship will be next" on July 20.

Gentlemen's Club was the first starter for Gentlemen as a sire. In his racing career, Gentlemen won nine of 18 starts, including Grade 1 races - the Pimlico Special (over Skip Away, no less), the Hollywood Gold Cup,and the Pacific Classic - and numerous other graded stakes for $3.1 million. The dam of Gentlemen's Club, Fire the Groom (by Blushing Groom), was a terrific turf mare for Mandella, winning $723,170 and races such as the Beverly D. Wilshire Handicap, Santa Anita Breeders' Cup Handicap, and other stakes. Gentlemen's Club is a half-brother of Group 1 July Cup winner Stravinsky (by Nureyev)

and sold for $550,000 at the 2001 Keeneland July yearling sale. R.D. Hubbard and Constance Sczesny own the colt.

Gentlemen's Club also has same brilliant copper/chestnut coat as his sire.

Mandella also has a Gentlemen-sired filly out of Grade 1 stakes winner Reluctant Guest, though she probably won't start until next year. By that time, this runner by Gentlemen could be a star.

Chief Planner

On the surface Chief Planner wasn't as brilliant as Gentlemen's Club, but that doesn't mean he can't make some noise down the road. A California-bred son of General Meeting, he ran on well in his debut for trainer Bob Baffert last month, but Saturday bided his time then put forth a strong three-eighths move to blow the field away. His Beyer Speed Figure was a mere 60, but there have been other General Meetings who didn't run all that fast early only to go on and do big things with more ground, experience,and maturity. Excellent Meeting and General Challenge come quickly to mind.

Like those two, Chief Planner is a big, powerfully built horse who figures to want much more than the five furlongs he got Saturday. The most impressive aspect of his win was the acceleration - he really ran for only about a quarter of a mile to three furlongs, but that explosion on the far turn into the lane was something to behold.

With that type of win under his belt and his pedigree, it certainly isn't out of reach that Chief Planner can make some noise for Baffert at Del Mar and beyond.

Two standouts in Haggin

Crowned Dancer is currently pro-tem leader of the 2-year-old division out West following his five-length romp in the Willard Proctor Stakes on May 26. He is set to run in Hollywood's $75,000 Haggin Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on Sunday. Crowned Dancer, trained by Chris Paasch, won the Proctor with a Beyer of 92, and originally was expected to await the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile on July 20.

"I don't like to run 2-year-olds that often," said Paasch, but he has been so impressed with the horse's training progress he found it difficult to wait a full two months between races.

"He's a scary horse. If we dare to dream that far ahead, and everything works out right, he would have four more races before the Breeders' Cup - this, the Hollywood Juvenile, the Best Pal, and the Del Mar Futurity."

The likely second choice is Oberwald, a California-bred by Swiss Yodeler who won his second start by 2 1/2 lengths, earning a Beyer of 80 and defeating Chief Planner.

Of course, Chief Planner appears to have improved dramatically, even if his winning Beyer from last weekend wasn't any great shakes. But judging 2-year-olds based on very early Beyers, particularly ones earned going just five furlongs, is tricky business. Many a runner who Beyered big right out of the box never got any better.

On the other hand, there have been many stakes horses who started off light in the Beyer department, only to step up their game with maturity and experience. Gentlemen's Club and Chief Planner could easily fit into that mode, and it wouldn't be shocking at all if by the end of this meet or the Del Mar meet these two are among the elite of the Western 2-year-old crop.