12/16/2004 12:00AM

Several reasons to like Proud Accolade

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Racetracks don't offer betting on the Eclipse Awards. Saturday's Hollywood Futurity offers the next best thing.

With three leading contenders for North America's top prize for 2-year-olds entered in the 1 1/16-mile race - Wilko, Declan's Moon, and Proud Accolade - the outcome could decide the championship. A dominant win by any of the three could secure a championship, or an upset or a workmanlike win from one of the favorites could open the door for another horse, such as Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Afleet Alex, who is sitting out this race.

My Eclipse vote for outstanding juvenile will not be decided until after the race. But I'm betting the name I will be writing on my ballot will be that of Champagne winner Proud Accolade.

Without a win in the Hollywood Futurity, he should not even be considered. But should he win - giving him Grade 1 victories on the East and West coasts - he would have to rank as the top 2-year-old in the land, at least in my eyes.

Saturday, I will be taking a stand by wagering on him to win the Hollywood Futurity. The reason? He is a legitimate horse tested against the very best. Proud Accolade began his career at Saratoga last summer, winning both starts there, and then won Belmont's Champagne Stakes, a race that seemed to be the deepest and best prep leading up to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

He ultimately flopped in the Breeders' Cup, finishing sixth, but not for a lack of ability. Inexperience seemed to be his undoing. Racing two turns for the first time, he seemed to get discouraged eating dirt while placed between horses on the backstretch.

Drawn in post 5 - outside Wilko and Declan's Moon - and equipped with blinkers for the first time in the Hollywood Futurity, I'm expecting a more professional performance. Jockey John Velazquez should be able to place him in a stalking position in the clear - the same tactics he utilized successfully in the Champagne.

Against a very nice group of horses, Proud Accolade will need a favorable trip to win. Wilko beat him soundly in the Breeders' Cup, and Declan's Moon is a fast horse with a home-track edge.

Both are talented racehorses, though like Proud Accolade, they are not without a weakness or two.

Wilko had run well in Europe prior to racing in the Breeders' Cup, but not so well that he was highly regarded coming into the race. His top Timeform ratings fell in the 105 range. By comparison, Johannesburg had run a 121 Timeform prior to winning the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

This suggests the massive leap forward that Wilko made in the Juvenile could leave him ripe for regression.

Historically, the Juvenile has been a less-than-productive race, too. Of its 20 winners, 19 came back to race, with five winning their first start back. None of the five winners went off at more than even money after winning the Juvenile.

Wilko won't be hammered like that, but compared to the 28-1 odds he was in the Breeders' Cup, he will only offer a fraction of that value.

Declan's Moon, meanwhile, has an unbeaten record and imposing Beyer Speed Figures. He ran a 107 Beyer in beating Breeders' Cup Juvenile favorite Roman's Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity, and he earned a 98 Beyer in winning the Hollywood Prevue under confident handling.

What he hasn't done is race beyond seven furlongs or compete in a Grade 1 stakes race. That inexperience could get the better of him going two turns for the first time - just as it proved Proud Accolade's undoing in the Breeders' Cup.

I like the confidence the connections of Proud Accolade have shown by sending their colt out to California for this race. Todd Pletcher, who leads North American trainers in earnings, ships to California infrequently at this time of year but wins at a high percentage when he does. He has 3 wins from 9 starts over the past three fall meets at Hollywood Park.

Judging from Proud Accolade's recent works over the Hollywood Park surface, Pletcher has him primed for a top effort. Such a performance could earn Proud Accolade more than the purse on Saturday - at least that's what I'm betting on.