12/08/2008 1:00AM

Never too early to think Derby

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NEW YORK - A lot is going to happen over the next five months. Five months from now, the 2009 Super Bowl - which will feature a matchup that, even with NFL Week 15 approaching, is still anyone's guess - will feel like ancient history. CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, currently the freest of free agents, will already be a month into their first seasons with their new ballclubs. And our new president (fingers crossed) will have found a way out of our economic mess, not to mention the path to world peace.

Okay, maybe not all of that will transpire over the next five months. But the point is, five months - a stint neither one of us would want to do in the joint - is a very long time, unless, that is, you're talking about the Kentucky Derby. Put in that context, the five months to the 2009 Derby doesn't feel like much at all. Heck, many of us have been thinking about the next Derby in concrete terms for more than a month now - from the moment the first horse crossed the wire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

So it's okay to talk a little bit about next year's Derby. There's no cause to feel embarrassed about beginning the process of categorizing some coming 3-year-olds with potential, starting with the top group of leading prospects. This group includes Midshipman, who will probably be voted champion 2-year-old male on the basis of his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Vineyard Haven, also a two-time Grade 1 stakes winner who passed on the Breeders' Cup; and Old Fashioned, who romped in the Remsen to remain undefeated. Whether you have issues with Midshipman because he has raced only on synthetic tracks, or with both Midshipman and Vineyard Haven because both will prep in Dubai, or with Old Fashioned because of his very easy trip in the Remsen, there can be no dispute that these three currently belong in this group.

Then you have the category of obvious contenders. This group includes Charitable Man, the undefeated winner of the Futurity who was knocked out of the Breeders' Cup because of injury; Break Water Edison, who snapped out of a two-race slump with a strong victory in the Nashua; Big Drama, who made Friday night's Delta Jackpot his fifth straight win, and who (rightly or wrongly) is already all but guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate because of the graded money he earned at Delta; and even Quality Road, whose impressive recent win at Aqueduct at first asking created enough of a buzz to elevate him into this category.

And then you have the group of potential Derby prospects who operate under the radar. This is a high-risk area, because things here can change very quickly. But it's also a high-reward area, because if you're right, you look like a genius. This is the category where the wise guys and pseudo-wise guys spend a lot of time in an effort to get in on the ground floor of something good, yours truly included. I like Quality Road quite a bit. I like Old Fashioned, too. But I'm also keeping my eye on these under-the-radar prospects, which I'll list in alphabetical order:

Atomic Rain - He was no match whatsoever for Old Fashioned finishing second in the Remsen. But he was clearly second-best, and the Beyer Speed Figure of 88 that he earned improved on his previous best by 12 points. And that's noteworthy considering he was going nine furlongs off a layoff of nearly six months after previously having raced only as far as five furlongs.

Gato Go Win - He couldn't get out of his own way in his first two starts, but he really turned things around with the addition of blinkers. His maiden win at Hollywood Park most recently, in his fourth start, was strong. He was hounded every step to the top of the stretch through fast fractions, and yet he still opened up impressively to win decisively.

I Want Revenge - He finished third behind barnmate Gato Go Win two starts back, and then got his maiden win at Hollywood last time out when suitably stretched out to two turns. Granted, he enjoyed an easy lead in that maiden score. But it was intriguing how he responded instantly to only moderate hand urging in the run to the wire to remain clear.

Indygo Mountain - He was a good second sprinting at Keeneland in his debut. But he really improved second time out on dirt at Churchill Downs with added distance, as you would expect from a son of A.P. Indy. He won in a runaway, showing a very good kick in the final furlong.

Silver City - It's unclear how far he really wants to go, but there is no doubt that he can really run off his allowance win sprinting at Churchill last time out. He was hard held setting a quick early pace, and absolutely cruised in the late stages, earning a Beyer Figure of 101, which bettered the Beyer he got for his maiden win at Keeneland one month earlier by 30 points.

Toulouse Lautrec - If you're high on Quality Road, like I am, then you can also have room for this colt. He made his debut in the same Aqueduct race Quality Road did and was easily second-best despite being obviously green, climbing a bit on the rail down the backstretch and lugging in at times in the run through the stretch.

Well Positioned - Here's another who saw the light thanks to blinkers. He didn't move a muscle in his debut. But at Aqueduct with the hood on in his second and most recent start, he made most of the pace, looked every bit the winner at 31-1 before even turning for home, and ran off to win by more than 14 lengths, earning a Beyer Figure of 91. And being by Awesome Again, he should relish more distance.