06/22/2006 12:00AM

Pair of 3-year-olds steal the show

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NEW YORK - So which race got the best speed figure of the day last Saturday at Churchill Downs, an extraordinary card with six graded stakes including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster?

It wasn't the Foster, which got a substandard Beyer of 99, consistent with how the race unraveled late. Form prevailed until the top of the stretch, as favorites Love of Money, Buzzards Bay, and Brass Hat were running one-two-three, then all seemed to hit a wall as Perfect Drift spurted past them only to be nailed at the wire by 91-1 Seek Gold.

It wasn't the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis for fillies and mares, which received the same 99 Beyer as the Foster for being clocked just a nose faster, 1:49.23 to the Foster's 1:49.24. Happy Ticket and Oonagh McCool put on a great show dueling to the wire and are clearly both going to be serious contenders for leadership of the division.

It wasn't either of the graded stakes for 3-year-old males, the Grade 3 Northern Dancer on dirt or the Grade 2 Jefferson Cup on the grass. High Cotton earned a 93 winning the Northern Dancer in 1:43.33 for 1 1/16 miles, a race in which co-favored Private Vow led with a furlong to go but suddenly faded to finish last. High Cotton, a useful second-stringer in the Todd Pletcher 3-year-old arsenal who has now won six-digit purses on the Lane's End, Preakness, and Foster undercards, inherited the lead and there wasn't much behind him.

Brilliant received a Beyer of only 92 winning the Jefferson Cup, but deserves a little more credit than that. The final time of 1:48.47 was more than a full second slower than 3-year-old fillies ran in the Regret later in the day, but the pace of the Jefferson was much slower, and Brilliant finished as if he might have a serious future. The War Chant colt made up two full lengths on a quick final furlong of 11.81 seconds after stalking a very loose leader in Tahoe Warrior.

It wasn't the Grade 3 Mint Julep, where My Typhoon, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway-Urban Sea filly, got a 96. The winner of last year's Virginia Oaks and the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere, My Typhoon has a solid record but has yet to try Grade 1 company and will have to continue moving forward to be competitive at the top of her division.

The two fastest races of the day instead came from a pair of 3-year-olds you are likely to be hearing more from in the months ahead.

The first was the filly Lady of Venice, who earned a 101 for her smashing four-length victory in the Grade 3 Regret, her fourth straight victory in five career starts and her second straight graded stakes since being imported from France and turned over to Patrick Biancone. She may be only the third most accomplished grass filly in her own barn, as Biancone also trains Gorella and Angara, but Lady of Venice could be something special.

In the Appalachian at Keeneland in April, Lady of Venice disposed of a small but strong field at will. In the Regret she was even more impressive, zooming into contention from ninth place, bulling her way through traffic, and then drawing off powerfully. She looks like the best 3-year-old grass filly in the county, and has several rich opportunities ahead against her contemporaries before tackling her elders this fall.

The day's other Beyer of 101 came not in one of the six graded stakes but in the maiden race that preceded them. Bright One, a 3-year-old Dance Brightly colt trained by Dale Romans, returned from a strong second in his debut last month to win by 9 1/2 lengths with a mile in a sparkling 1:33.91 - over the same track where the Foster and Fleur de Lis were run in 1:49 and low change. The three one-mile races on the card seemed a little quicker than the routes and the Beyers were conservatively adjusted accordingly, so if anything Bright One's 101 could have been even higher. In any case, a 3-year-old who can crack 1:34 for a mile in his second career start has to be considered a potential star.

The Foster card, despite some late scratches and a few short fields, came up a narrow winner on an afternoon of robust national wagering. The Churchill races handled over $14 million, edging the Hollywood ($13.7 million) and Belmont ($13.3 million) cards - not bad for the first weekend after the Triple Crown.