12/15/2004 1:00AM

One crown waits at finish line


INGLEWOOD. Calif. - Tension was beginning to mount Wednesday morning as the countdown continued toward Saturday's cage brawl in the Hollywood Futurity. There was a considerable amount of pacing and fussing and pawing at the ground, nervous activity fairly typical of a race that is certain to determine the divisional champion.

Good thing the horses haven't noticed.

The people surrounding Wilko, Proud Accolade, and Declan's Moon are washing out something fierce, and rightfully so. The winner of the Futurity - if he comes from among those three - is almost assured an Eclipse Award as the best 2-year-old male of the 2004 North American season.

Party-poopers gleefully point out that no 2-year-old champ has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby since the Middle Ages. Okay, 1979, which simply means that there has been a run of 50 horses good enough to do one or the other. That still puts them in a pretty rare category.

Horses who win both a 2-year-old championship and the Kentucky Derby usually have names like Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure, Citation, and Count Fleet. Seen any of them around in the last 25 years? Native Dancer couldn't do both. Neither could Tom Fool, or Buckpasser, or Nashua, but they all managed to parlay 2-year-old championships into reasonably satisfying careers.

Such historical distractions, however, are nothing more than decoration on an already exciting race. Best of all are the Hollywood Futurity personalities involved, three thoroughly professional young runners who seem old beyond their years.

"Look, he's yawning," said Craig Dollase as Wilko stood in the dappled sunlight of the Hollywood paddock during a late-morning schooling session Wednesday. "He does that a lot."

It's not that he is bored, either. Wilko already has led a life that would thoroughly exhaust most American 2-year-olds. His victory at 28-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Lone Star Park was his 11th start of the season, following a 2-2-4 record in 10 English outings. At an even dozen races, Wilko could be the most heavily campaigned 2-year-old champion - if he wins - since Vitriolic won six of 13 starts in 1967. Dollase, who took over from Jeremy Noseda after the Breeders' Cup, shakes his head in wonder.

"He doesn't act like a 2-year-old who's made 11 starts," Dollase said as his assistant, Nacho Ramirez, went through the motions of tightening a girth over a saddle towel. Wilko stifled another yawn.

"He's eaten well and trained with a lot of energy since he's been here," Dollase added. "I think he might have even put on a little weight."

Even so, Wilko will be playing the role of the scrappy little guy in the Futurity drama. Dollase estimates his height at just shy of 16 hands - "Maybe 16 if he stands up real stra-ight," the trainer said - and his weight at not quite a thousand pounds.

"He's kind of a plain Jane," Dollase said. "But he never does anything wrong. And he is very competitive."

Proud Accolade, winner of the Champagne Stakes for the Todd Pletcher stable, pushes 16-1 and weighs in at around 1,150, according to assistant trainer Whitey McCarthy.

"It's hard to fault him on conformation," McCarthy said. "He's a long-backed horse with a good shoulder and hip, and nothing really out of proportion. His best asset, though, is between his ears. He's got a great mind."

Just as Wilko picked the Breeders' Cup to run his best race, Proud Accolade chose that day to toss in his only clunker, finishing sixth. Blinkers will be added to his equipment Saturday.

"The Texas race has to be a throw-out," McCarthy said. "We couldn't give him an excuse. And if he had an excuse, it probably would have been physical, which means he wouldn't have been here for this race."

Compared to Proud Accolade, Declan's Moon is a tad taller and maybe a hundred pounds lighter, at least to the eye of trainer Ron Ellis. That is just the way he likes it, too.

"I remember asking Jack Van Berg last summer if he thought this horse was too skinny," Ellis said as Declan's Moon returned from his Wednesday jog. Van Berg's reply?

"Jack said you want them skinny," Ellis said. "They stay sounder for you. He said Alysheba was skinny and look how sound he was. My horse has grown since the summer, but I still ask Jack if he's too skinny every time I see him. He still says no."

Displaying the unflustered maturity of an older horse, Declan's Moon has won all three of his starts, including the Del Mar Futurity and the Hollywood Prevue, both at seven furlongs. If Ellis is worried about his lanky gelding getting the 1 1/16 miles of the Futurity, he is hiding it well.

"I'm more concerned about things like rain messing up his works, or getting sick because of the cold weather, or stepping on something coming back from the track," Ellis said as he grabbed a scraper and gave a hand with the bath. "I just never dreamed there'd be so much riding on this race."