11/16/2009 1:00AM

Never too early to think Derby

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Judging 2-year-olds at the tail end of their initial racing season is an interesting exercise that can pay dividends as these same horses head toward their 3-year-old seasons.

Usually, the first place to start is the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but this year, as was the case in 2008, the Juvenile was run on the synthetic Pro-Ride and requires some loosely formed interpretations.

Will Vale of York - who showed sharp late acceleration to nip Lookin at Lucky in the Juvenile at 30-1- develop into a bona fide Kentucky Derby contender? Not likely, given that he is scheduled to go to Dubai for the winter, where all potential Derby horses have either disappeared or lost their best chance to make an impact at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. This despite the late burst of acceleration he showed under the young Dubai-based jockey Ahmed Ajtebi.

To any thinking person who knows Derby history, Vale of York would be better served if he were left under the exceptional care of Godolphin's American-based assistant trainer, Richard Mettee, one of the best trainers whose name never appears on the official track program. But Sheikh Mohammad is committed to the idea that he will win the Kentucky Derby with a horse that is trained and developed in Dubai, so we can forget that possibility.

Moreover, it is highly likely that Vale of York will be making his dirt racing debut if he ships to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. The new racecourse in Dubai that has replaced Nad Al Sheba does not have a dirt racing surface; instead, all of its main-track races will be run on a Tapeta track, the synthetic surface designed and built by former world-class trainer Michael Dickinson.

So far, Vale of York has had five races on European turf courses, one on Pro-Ride, and will likely have but two Derby prep races on Tapeta. Good luck.

Lookin at Lucky may not have lived up to his name or his previously undefeated record, but he came out of his good Juvenile performance from a difficult post with the look of a Derby contender. First of all, you like to see a young horse run his race in spite of a bad trip or unlucky break, and you also like to see a Derby prospect with the physical scope of a long-distance runner.

To my eye, Lookin at Lucky is a probable Derby prospect. He's a long-striding, sleekly built natural router with the pedigree and connections to back that up. His sire, Smart Strike, merely sired two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, winner of the 2007 Preakness and BC Classic with more than $10 million earned. Lookin at Lucky is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has won three Kentucky Derbies while also training two second-place finishers in America's most famous race.

Will Baffert keep Lookin at Lucky on the California synthetics all the way to the Derby? In 2009, he kept Pioneerof the Nile in Southern California and had the colt ready for his best performance, a distant second in the Derby to the runaway stretch-runner Mine That Bird.

Yet, it is remotely possible that Baffert will ship Lookin at Lucky east for a prep on a dirt surface. He knows how to find the Los Angeles area airports and might see the benefit of a Wood Memorial or Arkansas Derby prep, or even the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. We should remember that War Emblem won the Illinois Derby just before Baffert purchased him for the Thoroughbred Corp. prior to War Emblem's 2002 Kentucky Derby victory.

As for the other horses who ran in the BC Juvenile, D' Funnybone, a two-time New York-based stakes winner, had the disadvantage of coming to Santa Anita with only dirt races behind him and a lack of experience beyond seven furlongs. Working against him on the Derby trail is his sprint-oriented pedigree. He is a son of sprinter D'wildcat, whose sire, Forest Wildcat, also was a precociously fast and distance-limited racehorse. After showing some speed for six furlongs in the Juvenile, D' Funnybone ran in reverse to finish last.

Noble's Promise, third in the Juvenile, had won on grass and two different Eastern synthetic tracks. He raced close to the lead throughout but had no late punch to match either Vale of York or Lookin at Lucky. Still, he already has outperformed his pedigree. He is a son of Cuvee, a last-place finisher in the 2003 BC Juvenile who is a son of the fine sprinter and wet-track superstud Carson City. The dam of Noble's Promise is by another top sprinter, Clever Trick. That's sprint on sprint on sprint all the way through.

Fourth-place finisher Piscitelli set the pace for almost a mile. He is by 1999 Belmont-Travers winner Victory Gallop out of a Relaunch mare and he graduated at one mile around two turns at Monmouth Park before his third-place finish on Polytrack in the Arlington-Washington Futurity. There is enough in all of that to keep track of him wherever trainer Greg Sacco decides to spend the winter.

The Todd Pletcher-trained fifth-place finisher Aikenite had closed ground effectively in two dirt races and one on Polytrack at three different distances prior to suffering some traffic problems in the Juvenile. As a son of Yes It's True, who defeated Easy Goer in the 1988 BC Juvenile, and out of a Saint Ballado mare, Aikenite has enough pedigree potential to keep him on the list.

The same is true for another Pletcher trainee, Eskendereya, who finished ninth. As a son of Giant's Causeway out of a Seattle Slew mare, Eskendereya certainly has the pedigree to improve with age and distance. He was seriously bumped about on the first turn of the Juvenile and never launched a bid. With only two prior starts - one on turf and one on dirt - Eskendereya nevertheless showed potential for the future when he won the one-mile off-the-turf Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont to earn a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.

At the same time, it has to be said that Pletcher has won numerous Derby preps year after year, only to bring flat horses to Louisville. Yet, there is hope with both of his Juvenile horses and a few others he has in his loaded barn.

For one thing, his mentor, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, suffered a long streak of Derby losses while winning many a Derby prep until he won his first of four Kentucky Derbies with the filly Winning Colors in 1988. Should Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes with the filly Rags to Riches, figure out how to leave something in the tank, his Derby drought eventually will come to an end.

Several other young horses to keep an eye on did not race in the BC Juvenile, and here are the three who made the strongest impression during the summer and early fall: Jackson Bend, Homeboykris and Sidney's Candy.

A son of low-profile Hear No Evil out of a Tabasco Cat mare, Jackson Bend swept through the Florida Stallion series and earned a triple-digit Beyer Fig in the In Reality stakes at 1 1/16 miles around two turns at Calder Race Course on Oct. 17.

Homeboykris, who won the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont with a stylish outside move in midstretch, also came north from Calder and may give trainer Rick Dutrow a return trip to the Derby, where he enjoyed success with Big Brown in 2008.

Sidney's Candy, missing in action since an impressive maiden win at Del Mar on Aug. 22, has a right to be a top 3-year-old given that his sire, Candy Ride, already has produced promising Derby-age horses. Trainer John Sadler also has been stepping up his game for more than two years in Southern California, so it would be no surprise to see him with a serious contender on the Triple Crown chase.