02/07/2007 12:00AM

Next Derby champ isn't on the map

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PHILADELPHIA - It was in mid-January last year when I told everybody to stop looking for the next Triple Crown star, get out their maps and trace down from Belmont Park through Philadelphia Park, Delaware Park, and Fair Hill, Md. - from whence came Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro. This really wasn't going to be so hard. Just follow the map and understand the pattern.

There were skeptics out there, and you know who you are. Barbaro, they were saying, was just a grass horse. Why would anybody think he could win the Kentucky Derby?

The Barbaro story, of course, had the perfect beginning and an ending none of us wanted. Like the colt's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and his vet, Dr. Dean Richardson, I choose to remember all the good that came on the track and the more than eight months at New Bolton Center that came after the Preakness. There is a message there for all us, if we choose to listen.

I wish I could tell you I see another Smarty, Alex, or Barbaro on the horizon in the mid-Atlantic region. Some are pinning their hopes on Rick Porter's Pennsylvania-bred colt, Hard Spun. Perhaps he will be the one, but, by this time, you already knew the other three were fast enough and versatile enough to challenge for the Derby. Even though unbeaten, Hard Spun, trained by Larry Jones, is still a bit of a mystery.

I kept telling another trainer, Michael Dickinson, that given the map, he had to have the next Triple Crown star at his Tapeta Farm, a few miles farther down I-95 from Fair Hill. Dickinson assures me he does not have that horse.

Which leaves me without a lock in 2007. I can't make any pronouncements like the one from Jan. 11, 2006, when I wrote, "I have stopped worrying about the Kentucky Derby, having long since considered the map and arrived at the obvious. Barbaro clearly is a lock."

So, I went back to basics, poring through all 450 Triple Crown nominations searching for insights. Sadly, I found no Utah-breds. I did, however, see some intriguing possibilities from some foreign countries, including Ireland, Germany, Australia, and Italy, plus, um, Alabama.

I found 10 Irish-breds, none more intriguing than Blackberry Boy. The horse won his maiden at Gowran Park in May, then finished fourth at Leopardstown in July, followed by a third in September at the Curragh as the odds-on favorite. Hasn't run since then, but there is still time.

Another Irish-bred, Brainy Benny, may have been only 1 for 6 in Great Britain, but this Zayat Stable runner did come to America last fall and run third, beaten nine lengths, in the Laurel Futurity, the first stakes win of Barbaro's career. Hasn't raced since then, but the Laurel effort has to inspire confidence.

The connections of German-bred Ambassador are obviously serious. The colt made his first start on Jan.o20 at Aqueduct. Since there are no races there restricted to German-breds, he was entered in an open maiden race. He went off at 33-1, passed some tired horses late, and finished fourth, beaten 18 lengths by Helios, another colt nominated to the Triple Crown. Ambassador's Beyer Speed Figure was 33. Some improvement is needed, but German-breds traditionally need more time to develop. I am not sure what this means, but Ambassador is training at Fair Hill.

The Australian-bred Giacosa has everything, except a race record. There is, of course, a chance that this son of Giant's Causeway might not need a prep race, or any race, before the Derby. If you see this horse entered in the Derby, don't say you weren't warned.

Men's Magazine might be the horse. An Italian-bred, he is unbeaten in three starts at San Siro. He won his maiden in June, then won twice in September. A son of Dr. Devious (remember him?), he has been training at Santa Anita so you know this is serious.

It's not every day you see an Alabama-bred that somebody thinks should be on the Derby trail. But Moonshine Talk has that going for him. Beyond that, it's kind of hard to say because the horse has not started.

Maybe, if they don't make the Derby, somebody will promote a match race between Moonshine Talk and Giacosa. Can you imagine the interest in Australia and Alabama? Really, it could be huge.