01/02/2006 1:00AM

Plenty of top 3-year-olds gather at Gulf

First Samurai (above) is projected to make his 2006 debut in the Feb. 4 Hutcheson. Barbaro may switch from turf to dirt.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The top south Florida-based candidate for the 132nd Kentucky Derby is First Samurai, but what does that really mean? In recent winters, horses such as Greenwood Lake, A P Valentine, Repent, Sky Mesa, Eurosilver, and Proud Accolade have shipped into Florida with similarly lofty reputations, and all came up far short on the first Saturday in May.

As a group, however, Derby hopefuls in south Florida perennially and deservedly evoke great hope, and as the 2006 Gulfstream Park meet kicks off Wednesday, this year is no exception.

First Samurai, the Giant's Causeway colt who won the Hopeful and Champagne before finishing third as the favorite in his 2-year-old finale, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is the logical place to start when compiling a list of Florida-based Derby possibilities. Owner Bruce Lunsford is keenly aware that success at 2 does not necessarily translate to the same thing at 3, and he and trainer Frank Brothers are treading lightly as they approach the Derby trail. The colt's projected season debut will come in the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on Feb. 4.

"We just want to take it slow and get him started out the right way," said Lunsford.

After First Samurai, the roster of Derby hopefuls touches a couple of sizable stables overseen by Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito.

Pletcher has an eye-popping 17 early nominees to the Florida Derby series, in yet another illustration of what a powerhouse his stable has become. Perhaps his top Derby hopeful is Bluegrass Cat, winner of the Grade 2 Remsen.

"Just because we nominate so many horses doesn't necessarily mean they'll all run in any of the prep races at Gulfstream," said Pletcher. "We'll see how the schedule goes and how everybody progresses."

Pletcher said My Golden Song, a winner of both career starts, will probably be his only starter for the initial race in the Florida Derby series, the $125,000 Aventura Stakes at one mile on Saturday.

Pletcher said Bluegrass Cat is possible for the Hutcheson and that High Cotton, runner-up in the Iroquois and Kentucky Jockey Club, "could be ready about that same weekend."

Pletcher added that Half Ours, idle since winning the Three Chimneys Juvenile in early May, "is coming along well" and that Saint Augustus, winner of the Dec. 3 What a Pleasure at Calder, likely will run next in the Jan. 14 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs.

Most of the other Pletcher prospects are well-bred colts still eligible for entry-level allowances. "That's where most of them will start out," he said.

"It looks like we've got a promising group of young horses," said Pletcher. "We're optimistic, but it's a long road and we're looking forward to getting under way. We're looking to have some success and hopefully it'll lead to bigger things down the road."

Zito, who started a record-tying five Derby starters last year, does not appear to hold such a strong hand this year but does have a fair number of hopefuls, most notably Doc Cheney and Hemingways Key, both unbeaten in two starts. Zito typically makes few early nominations to the Florida Derby series, mostly choosing instead to nominate on a race-by-race basis. This year he has only named Giant Basil and Hesanoldsalt.

Easily the most accomplished Derby candidate who would have been based at Fair Grounds but instead will train in south Florida is Private Vow, winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Trainer Steve Asmussen gave the colt about a month off and only recently brought him back to training. He said either the Swale or Fountain of Youth, both on March 4, could be long-range goals.

Meanwhile, besides First Samurai, only one other south Florida hopeful can claim a Grade 1 victory: Dawn of War, winner of the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in October.

"I honestly don't know if he's the same caliber as some of the best 3-year-olds down here," said trainer Dale Romans. "But if he's not, hopefully we can make some money with him in some of the Grade 2's or 3's later on."

Another dozen or more 3-year-olds have done enough so far to be near the top of the list of elites. That group includes Armament, Barbaro, Barbican, Barcola, Blazing Rate, City Attraction, Flashy Bull, In Summation, Itsallboutthechase, Laptop Computer, Noonmark, Right Place N Time, Saint Daimon, Storm Treasure, and Strong Contender.

Barbaro, trained by Mike Matz, has become a particularly strong candidate following his back-to-back romps in the Laurel Futurity and Tropical Park Derby. Both of those races were on turf, but Matz has said he may try him on dirt.

The $1 million Florida Derby, the final race in the series, is set for April 1, five weeks before the May 6 Kentucky Derby. For nearly 20 years, the Florida Derby had been run six or seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby, but Gulfstream chose to revamp the series last year.

2006 Florida Derby series

Jan. 7Aventura S.$125,0001 mile
Feb. 4Hutcheson S.150,000 (G2)7 1/2 furlongs
Feb. 4Holy Bull S.150,000 (G3)1 1/8 miles
March 4Swale S.150,000 (G2)7 furlongs
March 4Fountain of Youth S.300,000 (G2)1 1/8 miles
April 1Florida Derby1 million (G1)1 1/8 miles