11/08/2007 1:00AM

Signature Move tries to wake up division

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was the middle of August at Del Mar, and still no buzz in the 2-year-old division. No heat, no gas. The colts out West were slow.

Six furlongs in 1:12.08, the time for the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile weeks earlier, is not fast. It got worse on Polytrack at Del Mar. The ill-fated Drill Down (who was injured and euthanized after a Sept. 24 workout) won a six-furlong maiden race in 1:12.95, which stamped him as the division leader.

The California juveniles were slower than the Polytrack surface they raced on. If you liked speed, you had to look somewhere else. Because in summer 2007, the Del Mar 2-year-olds were running and training like they were asleep.

One of them actually was asleep, late one morning at the stable of trainer Eric Guillot. It was two days before the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes attracted just four runners, including Salute the Sarge, the Guillot-trained colt that had won the low-rated Hollywood Juvenile.

Speed handicappers were lining up to bet against the colt, and Guillot did not give a hoot. In his debut, Salute the Sarge had earned a creditable 82 Beyer Speed Figure. But in the Hollywood Juvenile, he slipped to 71. It was dreadful figure for a supposedly precocious 2-year-old.

So what? Guillot talked him up anyway. After all, Salute the Sarge had little to beat. The $4.6 million colt Maimonides had skipped town and crushed Saratoga maidens in a romp. The fastest California 2-year-old was maiden winner Slam Slew (92 Beyer), but he was waiting for the Del Mar Futurity, which he subsequently missed. There was nothing around.

California was bare. Everyone knew it. Salute the Sarge was the leader only by default, and Guillot laughed heartily that August morning as he launched into a sweeping discourse that was critical of speed figures and Quarter Horse-mentality speed training.

Guillot was cracking up the whole time. It is okay to laugh at your own material if it happens to be funny, which it was. And though rational horseplayers would disagree with Guillot's condemnation of a basic handicapping principle such as speed, it was comical.

You can't fault a guy for speaking his mind, even if he is wrong. Besides, Guillot was smiling and laughing all the while. It is his nature. Then he simmered down.

"Come over here," he said. "I'll show you a 2-year-old that will run circles around Salute the Sarge."

A dark bay colt was crashed in his stall, only a few yards from where Guillot and his staff were cooking up a big pot of Cajun something-or-other while enjoying a festive late-morning party. The colt was lying down. He was sound asleep.

"Here he is," Guillot said. Signature Move raised one eyelid, obviously bored by the attention. "You'll be hearing about him."

Oh, sure. That's what they all say. There is always one better back in the barn. Salute the Sarge was already 2 for 2, and Signature Move had not even recorded his first official workout. It didn't matter. Guillot hinted that the two colts did not breathe the same air.

Summer slipped away, three months passed by. Fast forward to early November and little has changed. The 2-year-olds are still vanilla. Salute the Sarge made it 3 for 3 winning the Best Pal, lost three times, and is out. Del Mar Futurity winner Georgie Boy is out. Norfolk Stakes winner Dixie Chatter is out. Slam Slew is out, still. If there is a good 2-year-old in California, he is still a secret.

Well, maybe not a secret. The unraced 2-year-old on which Guillot was bragging all summer finally entered a race. Saturday at Hollywood Park, the world will discover if he is deserving of the fuss. Signature Move entered race 6, and everyone will be watching.

Everyone always takes notice when a 2-year-old by Vindication makes his debut. This crop is the first by the 2002 champion juvenile, and Vindication is off to a good start.

Through Thursday, 41 juveniles sired by Vindication had made at least one start. Nine of them won (22 percent). They include Maimonides (sidelined with shins) and More Happy (out after throat surgery). The win rate for Vindication-sired debut 2-year-olds bodes well for the Guillot-trained Signature Move.

But does it bode well for bettors? It depends on how one feels about backing a first-time starter at a short price. One thing about offspring of Vindication, the good ones anyway, is they rarely are secret. Seven of the nine debut winners paid $7.60 or less; the other two paid $10.20 and $13.20.

One reason that the good Vindications are so heavily bet is because most have speed. Maidens with speed typically show it in workouts, people see it, and the betting market reacts accordingly. First-time starters with speed, particularly by a hot sire, do get bet.

Generally speaking, it takes a horse with above-average ability to win first time out. And when a 2-year-old firster wins in fast time, stakes beckon. The sky is the limit, or so it seems. However, offspring of Vindication still have much left to prove.

Only two of the nine debut winners sired by Vindication subsequently earned improved figures. The other seven regressed or were sidelined. The two that improved are fillies at Woodbine - Dawn Raid won her Aug. 16 debut with a 78 Beyer, and earned a 79 and an 85 in her next starts.

Miss Van Gogh won her June 23 debut at Woodbine with a 53 Beyer, followed with a 61, and then flamed out with a 48.

The high-profile Vindications that went backward include crushing Saratoga winner Sargent Seattle (93 to 72), Maimonides (90 to 83), More Happy (86 to 81 to 57), and Galiano (69 to 37).

Will offspring of Vindication merely follow their sire's pattern? Vindication was a brilliant front-runner who won all four starts as a 2-year-old and never raced again.

Perhaps that is being overly critical. One thing is certain - the California 2-year-old colt division is ripe for a new shooter.

In race 6 Saturday at Hollywood Park, the racing world will find out if Signature Move was worth the wait, or just another over-hyped colt by a hot young sire.