01/09/2008 12:00AM

Road to the Derby isn't open yet


PHILADELPHIA - It is a rite of early January. I need a Triple Crown fix. So I actually pay attention to the Hutcheson and Count Fleet.

Even though these races no longer matter and the Kentucky Derby big boys are still on the bench during a long time-out, I can't help myself.

I could tell you that Smarty Jones won the 2004 Count Fleet. I will tell you I had no idea what that meant at the time.

I know that Smooth Air won the Hutcheson and unbeaten New York-bred Giant Moon won the Count Fleet.

The likelihood of either of those horses even making the Derby starting gate, much less arriving as a factor, is about the same as Britney Spears being named Mother of the Year. Still, I could not resist watching the replays several times.

Smooth Air ran like a good horse around the turn of the Hutcheson and earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. In fact, he ran like a horse that looked like he could still run rather fast at longer distances.

The betting was interesting. On the numbers, Halo Najib, Tiz It, and Smooth Air should have taken about the same amount of money. Instead, Halo Najib was 2-1, Tiz It, still a maiden, was 7-2, and Smooth Air was 9-1. In a race where it looked like a low 90 would win, it was just a question of where to fall. Clearly, Smooth Air was the overlay, which is always easy to say after the race is over.

When there are maiden races at Philadelphia Park with purses of more than $40,000, the world really has turned upside down. When the winner of a Philadelphia Park first-level allowance race is the favorite in a New York stakes, life really has gotten confusing. Maybe, those Aqueduct players mistook Roman Emperor for Smarty Jones.

The bettors made Roman Emperor 2-1, with Giant Moon and Barrier Reef just behind at 5-2. The Beyers pointed to Giant Moon. I have no clue why Barrier Reef, who finished a distant fourth, took that kind of action. Another New York-bred, the legendary Spanky Fischbein, was 4-1.

In the stretch, it was the two statebreds running together in a duel reminiscent of Affirmed-Alydar. Hey, it was 30 years ago. Memories are flooding back now that it is 2008. Giant Moon-Spanky Fischbein has a similar ring to Affirmed-Alydar. Sort of. Maybe. Okay, no.

But that is what we have. Giant Moon's four Beyers are 83, 84, 82 and, in the Count Fleet, a solid 92.

What do these results mean in the larger context of the Triple Crown run-up? I have no idea because, at this point, there is no context.

I kind of yearn for the days when top 3-year-olds actually ran shortly after their birthdays. Each weekend, the picture would come more clearly into focus. Now, we wait until February or March.

I can't wait. I need action.

I yearn for the days of Smarty Jones. Believe it or not, Smarty ran in January, February, March, and April before winning the Derby.

If a trainer did something like that today with a contender, he would be ruled off.

By the way, that was four years ago, not 40. It just seems like another time.

Now, most trainers are scared to make a mistake. And if you don't run, you can't be wrong.

None of this helps those of us who have watched this evolve from a racing game to a training game. Last I checked, you can't bet on gallops or workouts. You can learn things, but, if there are no exactas, did it actually happen?

Last Saturday, I learned that Smooth Air, never worse than third in five starts, is a pretty nice horse. I also learned that Giant Moon, unbeaten in four starts, might very well be the New York-bred version of Affirmed (there is that name again.) You know, the kind of horse that just does enough to stay in front of any horse that dares challenge him. Well, maybe not Affirmed. Didn't Affirmed win the Triple Crown?

By the way, anybody seen War Pass? Until we do, this will have to do. Now, you are clued in to what is known about the 3-year-olds of 2008, at least those few that have actually raced.

And remember that if the Derby exacta box is Smooth Air-Giant Moon, you read it here first. If it's not, or if neither ever gets close to Churchill Downs, you may forget you ever read this. If, however, Spanky Fischbein is in the exacta, trifecta, superfecta, or even within the city limits of Louisville, the game that gave us Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed is officially a game with issues too serious to even contemplate.