06/15/2005 11:00PM

Robbins's latest project intriguing

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It wasn't done this way on purpose, but Saturday's Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park comes at the perfect moment to remind the game once again that there may never be another Triple Crown winner because there will never be another Affirmed.

As every schoolchild knows, Affirmed represents the last of the line, winner of the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes after a thorough testing by rival Alydar. Those two colts, both bred by their owners, came from a 1975 North American foal crop of 28,271 that was still under the stern influence of female families nurtured by an aristocratic class that shunned commercial breeding considerations.

Afleet Alex and the rest of the registered 2002 North American crop came in at 35,804, but it is a population bred more for the sales ring than for the pride of private ownership. As a result, the breed has been homogenized, which makes it all the more delightful when a horse such as Afleet Alex emerges from the pack.

He needs company, though, if the division is to be taken seriously, and so it is time to take a deep, cleansing breath and a late springtime inventory to find out if there's any reason to get excited the rest of the year, beyond the anticipated appearances of Afleet Alex.

The Affirmed, with its barely acceptable purse of $100,000, offers a peek at a few of California's more attractive possibilities. Buzzards Bay still has something to prove if his Santa Anita Derby upset is to be believed, but his Kentucky Derby was an admirable step in the right direction. Surf Cat has progressed beautifully for Bruce Headley, winning his sprints with lots left in the tank, while Khyber Pass, sired by the trans-Atlantic stakes winner Running Stag, has a local win over the distance.

The most intriguing of the new shooters is Indian Ocean, a drop-dead gorgeous son of the young Storm Cat stallion Stormy Atlantic and the Halo mare Indian Halo. In three starts for trainer Jay Robbins, flying in the colors of Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable, Indian Ocean has two wins and a third - which is not bad, except for the fact that so far the handsome colt has yet to take himself seriously as a racehorse.

"He's almost too good-looking to be a good horse," said Robbins, an exacting, old-school horseman who thinks Indian Ocean could be the exception to the rule.

"He's a bit of a handful around the barn, but he's very professional training in the mornings on the racetrack," Robbins went on. "At this point, I think it's just a matter of him maturing a little bit more, and I think he will."

Because of his late start (blame his shins), his commanding appearance, and the presence of Robbins in the mix, Indian Ocean must suffer the inevitable comparisons with the time line of Tiznow, who emerged as the best 3-year-old colt of a generation that included Fusiachi Pegasus, Captain Steve, Red Bullet, and War Chant.

In the spring of 2000, while attention was diverted to the Triple Crown, Robbins was quietly dealing with Tiznow's quirks and mild personality disorders, mostly stemming from the fact that he was big and fast and very green. Tiznow learned fast, going from his maiden win on May 31 at Hollywood Park to a victory in the Affirmed, in his very next start, over Dixie Union, who went on to take the Haskell.

Tiznow followed that with a second in the Swaps to Captain Steve (ultimate winner of a Dubai World Cup) and a second in the Pacific Classic to the older Skimming. Subsequent victories in the Super Derby, the Goodwood, and the Breeders' Cup Classic - over European star Giant's Causeway - were enough to earn Tiznow honors as Horse of the Year. Other than the 2-year-olds Secretariat and Favorite Trick, Tiznow is the only Horse of the Year in the history of the Eclipse Awards to begin the season an unstarted maiden.

The idea that any animal would come along to emulate Tiznow's development and success is as preposterous as thinking there are a lot of little Afleet Alexes out there, just waiting to be trained five miles a day. Robbins, whose experience with good horses stretches back to his work with Gene Cleveland and Noble Threewitt in the 1960's, is content to enjoy the opportunity presented by Indian Ocean.

Besides, every talented horse presents a fresh puzzle. In his most recent start, an allowance victory at 1 1/16 miles on May 25, Indian Ocean gave his people a fright when he ducked inward from Jon Court's right-handed whip.

"You've got to be happy that he won going long, but I was a bit disappointed in the manner in which he did it," Robbins noted. "What I've noticed, though, since his last race, is that he's leveled out his stride more. He's closer to the ground, in his gallops and his last couple of works. Jon thinks he's taken a big step forward since that last race, so we'll find out. There are some very promising young horses in Saturday's race."

Let's hear it, then, for the late bloomers. Indian Ocean could be worth the wait.