02/11/2003 1:00AM

Promising 3-year-olds taking giant step

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LAS VEGAS - If you haven't gotten Derby fever yet, you will by this weekend. Some of the more highly regarded 3-year-olds take a big step toward the Triple Crown in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, both at 1 1/16 miles. As if that were not enough, the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream will feature the exciting Will's Way colt Lion Tamer.

With Vindication out of the Triple Crown picture, and question marks surrounding last year's highly rated Sky Mesa and Toccet, an outstanding performance by a promising 3-year-old in these two races could send him straight to the top of the list.

Fountain of Youth

He was overlooked in the Holy Bull Stakes, but Offlee Wild's victory was hardly a fluke. Although his sire, Wild Again, has not been a flashy stallion in the mold of a Mr. Prospector or Storm Cat, he has been a very successful sire by any standard. Winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic at age 4, Wild Again has produced mostly runners who have speed and are adept on both dirt and turf. Wild Again's prominent offspring include Canadian champion older mare Wildnerness Song, Canadian 2-year-old champion Free at Last, Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew, Metropolitan Handicap winner Wild Rush, Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Elmhurst, and 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava.

Offlee Wild comes from a strong Darby Dan female family. His dam, Alvear (by Seattle Slew), is a half-sister to multiple stakes winner and important sire Dynaformer, and this family produced 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. It's a good bet that we have seen only the tip of Offlee Wild's talent.

Risen Star Stakes

A great deal of attention in the Risen Star will focus on Indy Dancer. Indy Dancer gained many fans when he won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in the same explosive manner as his maiden victory as a 2-year-old at Aqueduct. By A.P. Indy out of a full sister to stakes winner and promising second-crop sire Souvenir Copy, Indy Dancer has shown a powerful burst of acceleration in his races and is bred to succeed at longer distances.

When Indy Dancer travels to Fair Grounds, he may find at least 12 challengers lying in wait, headed by another exciting and undefeated 3-year-old in Seattle Hoofer.

Although those he faced in his latest allowance victory were of questionable quality, Seattle Hoofer won in a spectacular manner. Blocked repeatedly and forced to check numerous times, Seattle Hoofer unleashed a devastating turn of foot to win with a flourish. It was the kind of move that only special horses make. And Seattle Hoofer has the pedigree to repeat that performance. By the remarkable Seattle Slew (sire of Vindication, as well as grandsire of Indy Dancer and damsire of Offlee Wild), Seattle Hoofer is out of the stakes-winning mare Star of Broadway, who is by the stamina influence Broad Brush. Star of Broadway came to hand early in her 3-year-old year, winning the Thelma Stakes at Fair Grounds. Seattle Hoofer descends from an important George D. Widener female family that was later cultivated by Buckland Farm. Like Indy Dancer, Seattle Hoofer should only get better with each additional furlong.

Another colt entering the Risen Star with a lofty reputation is Badge of Silver, who owns a great deal of speed inherited from his sire, Silver Deputy, who is best known as the sire of champion Silverbulletday. Badge of Silver is certainly qualified to win a stakes at 1 1/16 miles, but it gets trickier beyond that distance. Badge of Silver inherits much-needed stamina from his damsire, Silver Hawk, but it is unlikely that he will be at his best at 1 1/4 miles.

Many of the Risen Star entrants are better bred for grass than dirt. Among this group are Prince Alphie, Canaan Land, Leo's Last Hurrahy, and Gentlemen JJ.

Prince Alphie is by hidden-turf sire Alphabet Soup (Cozzene), and he won the Black Gold Handicap at 7 1/2 furlongs on the turf. Finishing second to Prince Alphie was Canaan Land, by Grand Slam (Gone West), another hidden-turf sire. Leo's Last Hurrahy is by the late and underrated stallion Leo Castelli (a half-brother to Meadowlake by Sovereign Dancer), out of a mare by grass influence Rahy. Leo's Last Hurrahy's dam is a half-sister to stakes winner Whadjathink and to Katerina Key, the dam of grass star Influent. Gentlemen JJ is from the promising first crop of Gentlemen, the sire of Man Among Men, who recently upset the heavily favored Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Gentlemen achieved his greatest success on dirt, but his runners will ultimately prove best on turf.

Too soon to toss Empire Maker

Empire Maker finished second in the Sham Stakes as the 2-5 favorite, but it would be folly to dismiss him as a Derby candidate off that one race. Considering that it was only his third lifetime start and that he was asked to go 1 1/8 miles in his first race at 3, Empire Maker has abundant room for improvement. The Sham Stakes is not the prize, and that's why they call these races "preps." But Empire Maker must make the transition from exciting 3-year-old prospect to a bona fide Derby contender in his next race. In a year thus far devoid of any clear-cut leaders, Empire Maker may still lead the way in May.