11/28/2005 1:00AM

No longer a two-turn mystery


NEW YORK - Stevie Wonderboy won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and is a lock to be voted the champion 2-year-old male of 2005. First Samurai was a two-time Grade 1 winner before finishing third as the favorite in the Juvenile. And Henny Hughes split these two in the Breeders' Cup, extending a record that has never seen him finish worse than second. So despite their decisive stakes victories last Saturday, Bluegrass Cat and Private Vow still have some work to do before they are considered on the same level as the big three of their generation.

By virtue of their respective wins in the Remsen at Aqueduct and the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, however, Bluegrass Cat and Private Vow can now boast something that their more highly ranked contemporaries can't, at least not yet: an important stakes victory around two turns.

Recognition and respect are nice and all, but they won't help you negotiate a solitary inch on the long road to the Kentucky Derby. And let's face it, when you talk 2-year-olds from the Breeders' Cup on, you do so (or should, anyway) in the context of the Derby. Beyond looking for talent, everyone is looking for the colt (or gelding) who can get "the" distance.

This is not meant to suggest that Stevie Wonderboy or First Samurai figure to have any trouble once they finally do stretch out to two turns. Their pedigrees and running styles offer every reason to expect them to be at least as effective going a meaningful distance of ground. And even though Henny Hughes has more of a miler's type of pedigree, his ability will probably allow him to get two turns in the right situation.

But these are no longer unanswered questions for Bluegrass Cat and Private Vow. And this explains why - purse money and Eclipse Award considerations aside - races like the Kentucky Jockey Club, and especially the Remsen, have become better than the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for pointing a 2-year-old toward the Kentucky Derby. That may not sound like much given the record of futility that Juvenile winners have had in the Derby. Since the advent of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, there have been only three colts (Spend a Buck, Alysheba, and Sea Hero) to win the Derby after unsuccessfully contesting the Juvenile at 2. Following Sea Hero's win in the Derby 12 years ago, however, there have been two Remsen winners (Go for Gin and Thunder Gulch) and a Kentucky Jockey Club third-place finisher (Real Quiet) who went on to win the Derby - and not a single Derby winner who even started in the Juvenile.

Proficiency at two turns isn't the issue that separates the Breeders' Cup Juvenile from the Remsen and Kentucky Jockey Club, because most years the Juvenile is run around two turns. But every year, the Remsen and the Kentucky Jockey Club are run four weeks after the Breeders' Cup, which means these races are run four weeks closer to the time when 2-year-olds officially turn 3. Four weeks at this time of year can be crucial when it comes to the physical and mental development of a 2-year-old. So because of their placement on the calendar, races like the Remsen and the Kentucky Jockey Club often present a more accurate picture of 3-year-old form.

Bluegrass Cat made it three straight wins from four starts with his front-running victory as the heavy favorite in the Remsen on Saturday. And though it seemed like he had to work hard to turn back a challenge from Flashy Bull, the more you watch the replay, the more it seems that they could have gone around Aqueduct's main track 10 more times and Bluegrass Cat would not relinquish the lead. Another reason for encouragement is the contention by Bluegrass Cat's connections that he has a habit of waiting for competition. Although some horses never outgrow that, if Bluegrass Cat can, it increases his potential.

Private Vow, who was a heavy favorite in the Kentucky Jockey Club, was an official starter in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But after having a rein break early on, he was in every other respect a no-show. In any event, he scored comfortably Saturday after pressing the pace, and understandably, his people took great hope from a victory at Churchill Downs, site of the Derby.

Indian Vale bests older foes

Indian Vale's overwhelming victory in Churchill's Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day was impressive on its own, but it took on even greater meaning when you consider that she is still an inexperienced 3-year-old filly who crushed some good older opponents. She will likely be a major player next year in an older female division that right now looks like it will be sorely lacking in depth.

Indian Vale's victory in the $300,000 Falls City triggered a huge weekend for trainer Todd Pletcher, who also sent out Magna Graduate to win Friday's $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill, Purge to win Saturday's $350,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, and Bluegrass Cat to win the $200,000 Remsen. Every dollar that Pletcher-trained horses earn from here to the end of the year will increase Pletcher's single-season earnings record, and increase the need to get his Hall of Fame plaque ready when he is eligible.