03/14/2007 11:00PM

No one seems able to show speed to burn

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When the fast 3-year-old sprinter Cobalt Blue stretches out to two turns Saturday in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, he could seize control of a paceless division.

But if Cobalt Blue runs like so many other 3-year-olds this winter at Santa Anita, he will squander the opportunity.

From late December through the middle of March, most in the 3-year-old division have played on their heels with frustrating, defensive running styles.

Has early speed lost its value? Hardly. But this season, predictable two-turn strategy has been to slow it down and try to finish. No one takes chances by opening up.

No one runs their rivals off their feet. It seems is as if the synthetic era - slow early, fast late - already has begun. The thing is, Santa Anita races are still on dirt. And on dirt, speed kills.

Or does it?

The first route of the meet for the current season's 3-year-olds was Dec. 30. Level Red walked on the front end with an opening half in 48.23 seconds and six furlongs in 1:12.32. He won the 1 1/16-mile maiden race by a neck, and it set the tone.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 12, the pace was only slightly quicker in a mile maiden race that unfolded in 46.82 seconds and 1:11.83. The Quirin-style pace figure, generated by Tom Brohamer, was below par for 3-year-old

maidens. The maiden pace par is 102, and the race earned 100. Just okay.

Tenfold aggressively tried to wire the Gradeo2 San Rafael on Jan. 13. Racing one mile, he attempted to go for it. But after opening up 3o1/2 lengths through a solid half-mile in 46.29 seconds, he surrendered.

Tenfold tried it again Feb. 2 by setting solid fractions in a first-level allowance before folding. Tenfold then disappeared. But give him credit. Twice this meet, he tried to win a race on his terms by running fast early. As it turns out, he is simply not good enough.

Is anyone? Is there a 3-year-old in California that can run fast and keep going? Not yet.

California-bred maidens Stellar Mark and Leesider ran one-two all the way in a slow-tempo mile race Jan. 14. Five days later, on Jan. 19, the pace was absurd. Level Red went six furlongs in 1:13.50 in a first-level allowance. And lost. He could not or would not run away from the horses chasing him.

Ravel became all the rage Feb. 3 in the Gradeo3 Sham Stakes, another slow-tempo race that already has been exposed. The early fractions for the 1 1/8-mile Sham were 48.08 and 1:12.41. The six-furlong fraction was at least one full second slower that par.

Ravel tucked behind the walking pace, angled out at the top of the lane, and won by a length with a solid Beyer Speed Figure of 102. Was the race legitimate? Perhaps it was not. Because when runner-up Liquidity faced legitimate fractions next out in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, he fell apart in deep stretch.

Trainer Doug O'Neill blamed himself for not training Liquidity hard enough between starts. There might be another reason for Liquidity's poor Fair Grounds performance. Maybe he was too soft because he had not raced hard enough

Pace-figure analysis identifies potential vulnerability. Horses do look good in soft-pace races such as the Sham. But when those same horses (i.e., Liquidity) face legitimate, faster fractions, they often crumble.

That will be the challenge for Ravel and Liquidity when they run April 7 in the Santa Anita Derby - will either colt be as effective in races that unfold with a true pace?

Perhaps by the time the Santa Anita Derby is run, the pace of the California 3-year-old division will have picked up steam. But so far, it has not. That is why a sprinter such King of the Roxy cannot be ignored when he ships out for the Santa Anita Derby.

The slow-pace trend was on display Wednesday in race 6, a mile maiden race, at Santa Anita. The slow pace was 47.09 seconds, followed by 1:11.60. The 2-1-3 pacesetters

finished 1-2-3. Fine Flyer won going away in strong final time (1:36.65). But will he handle increased pace pressure against winners? That is the question.

All of this makes Cobalt Blue the key player Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes. He can sprint a half-mile in 45 seconds, and still finish. The 1 1/16-mile San Felipe will be his first try around two turns.

The question for Cobalt Blue is whether he will use his speed, or suck the field along and try to kick for home. Will he gamble, or play safe?

Level Red earned the highest pace figure of his career last out in a first-level allowance. He also earned a career-best speed figure. He is the most likely winner of the San Felipe.

But if Cobalt Blue seizes command, look out.

That probably will not happen. Because this winter at Santa Anita, the 3-year-old division is either too cautious or too slow to take

seriously.