02/23/2006 1:00AM

Prevailing trend forces Southwest Stakes bet


ARCADIA, Calif. - Despite the perils of wagering on a race from an unfamiliar circuit, the Southwest Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park looks too tempting for a California horseplayer to pass.

Ten runners entered the mile stakes, led by Lawyer Ron, a legitimate favorite whose four starts on dirt produced four runaway wins. The Southwest field also includes much-hyped Music School, a 2-for-2 son of A.P. Indy whose pedigree exceeds his accomplishments.

What makes the Southwest so appealing, and potentially predictable, is a curious trend that has developed as last year's 2-year-olds become this year's 3-year-olds - juvenile form of 2005 has held up remarkably well into 2006.

Stevie Wonderboy validated his Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Juvenile win with a sharp runner-up effort Jan. 14 in the Grade 2 San Rafael at Santa Anita. BC third-place finisher First Samurai returned to finish second Feb. 4 in a fast Grade 2 at Gulfstream Park, the Hutcheson. And BC fourth-place finisher Brother Derek has since won two graded stakes to emerge as a leading Kentucky Derby hopeful.

That is not all. The form established last fall in New York in the best 2-year-old stakes has held up in ensuing months. Too Much Bling chased top company last fall at Saratoga and Belmont. This winter at Santa Anita he power-housed his way to the top of the 3-year-old sprint division with successive wins.

It is the same with Bluegrass Cat, who validated his Nov. 26 victory in the Grade 2 Remsen by winning his Feb. 18 comeback in the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Everything has been so comfortably predictable - what happened last year has forecast what happened this year.

It is unusual because in some years the major 2-year-old races of fall often are rendered virtually inconsequential the next season. It happens when late-developers emerge with sudden bursts of improvement and knock off the previous season's stars. So far in 2006, there have been no surprises.

In California, allowance races and lower stakes for 3-year-old produced unexceptional performances. Point Determined (89 Beyer Speed Figure), Bob and John (96 and 92) and the injured One Union won allowance-caliber races in workmanlike style. They remain well below standards set by Brother Derek, whose last two Beyer Figures are 108 and 102.

Impressive Santa Anita maiden winners Really Indian and Latent Heat remain on hold because a two-turn allowance failed to fill at Santa Anita on Feb. 18 and again on Feb. 24. It means the unseasoned colts must go straight into the Grade 2 Santa Catalina March 4 against battle-tested Brother Derek.

The exception to significance of 2-year-old stakes has been in the Midwest; top autumn races in Chicago and Kentucky have had negligible national impact. Sorcerer's Stone was brilliant in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 18, but he could not be found one month later in the Breeders' Cup. It prefaced a trend.

Away from home, Midwest horses have been foiled. High Cotton, runner-up twice last fall in graded stakes at Churchill Downs, was eased in a Wednesday allowance at Gulfstream. Catcominatcha, winner of the Grade 3 Iroquois Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs, has been a non-factor twice this winter at Gulfstream.

Feb. 25 is early, but it also is getting late. The Kentucky Derby is 10 weeks from Saturday. Perhaps the Southwest Stakes will provide segue to the national stage for one or more of the 10 runners. And until there are signs of 3-year-old turbulence, handicappers can expect continued predictability. Form has held, which simplifies analysis of the Southwest field.

Lawyer Ron defeated Mark of Success, who defeated Steppenwolfer, who defeated Sharp Attack. Four starters in the Southwest are ranked on primitive horse-against-horse comparison. Call it oversimplification, but so far this winter, it has worked.

A handicapper might further disparage Red Raymond, whose Kentucky form last summer and fall has been clouded by the horses he chased, including the disappointing High Cotton, Catcominatcha, and Sorcerer's Stone. First-time starter Agrapha is a toss-out.

If Lawyer Ron is better than three other starters, and Red Raymond not as good as his form looks, it leaves four others to consider -the much-hyped Music School, sprinters Travelin Leroy and Celluloid Hero, and potential upsetter Kingsfield.

Music School's comeback win Feb. 5 was modest visually, and earned an average 89 Beyer. Expectations are Music School will improve, but his odds will be depressed. If he wins at a short price, what did a bettor really miss? Not much.

Celluloid Hero is an honest sprinter riding a three-race streak in which his win payoffs were $20.80, $44.20, and $35.40. The Southwest marks his first start around two turns. It is a race he can win, though he is compromised by the outside post.

Travelin Leroy is sired by Two Punch, and each successive race of his has been progressively worse. It is a familiar pattern - a 2-year-old runs a 95 Beyer in May, and spends the rest of his career trying to reproduce the effort. The chase is often futile.

Kingsfield might not be fast enough to beat Lawyer Ron. But his smashing sloppy-track romp Jan. 22 at Louisiana Downs marked a forward move from a third-place comeback, and signaled a return to the outstanding 2-year-old form he established at minor tracks Prairie Meadows and Canterbury Park.

The 5 1/2-length blowout by Kingsfield might have been a breakthrough race by a colt that proved last season he was above average. The gamble is, as with many of his contemporaries, Kingsfield will continue his juvenile form into age 3.

And at 8-1 or higher, Kingsfield is too tempting to pass in the Southwest Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.