10/15/2003 12:00AM

Skipping the BC Juvenile is wrongheaded


BOSTON - Marylou Whitney says it's "too much, too soon," so she will not run her outstanding colt Birdstone in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. And her trainer, Nick Zito, agrees with her logic. So he is not going to run Eurosilver, the second of his promising 2-year-olds. (Apparently, Eurosilver bucked shins, but clearly Zito was reluctant to run the colt even if he was in perfect health.) Whitney and Zito believe that if they run their horses in the Juvenile they would jeopardize their chances of winning the Kentucky Derby next May.

Of course, we're not surprised to hear Zito talk on about the overwhelming priority of the Derby. After all, Zito has a more-or-less permanent case of Derby Fever. But now we discover that the runaway winner of the Norfolk, Ruler's Court - even after the two Zito defections - has also been denied the chance to run for $1.5 million in the BC Juvenile. And Ruler Court's connections insist that he is in perfect condition. Silver Wagon, another promising juvenile, is also out. So, it means that the winners of the Hopeful, Norfolk, Champagne, and Lane's End Breeders' Futurity will not be showing up for racing's biggest day.

The owners and trainers of these horses appear to be focused on one undeniable fact: no Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Apparently, these people believe that a big effort in late October takes too much out of a young horse, even though they have more than six months after the BC Juvenile to get ready for the Derby. Perhaps we should applaud the owners' and trainers' concern for their horses' long-term well-being. But are they running scared for no reason? Are they right in thinking that a high-quality, well-prepared colt that runs well in the Breeders' Cup cannot then recover by mid-winter to prepare for the Kentucky Derby?

Perhaps we should consult the trainer of 1994 Derby winner Go for Gin - the same reluctant-to-run Mr. Zito. Go for Gin did not win the Juvenile. But he did win the Remsen at Aqueduct, a month after the Breeders' Cup, and at a longer distance (1 1/8 miles compared to the Juvenile's 1 1/16 miles). And the next year, Thunder Gulch won the Remsen and went on to win the 1995 Derby. So, clearly, running in middle-distance stakes races late in a colt's 2-year-old season does not constitute some sort of crippling curse.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Juvenile is a tougher race than the Remsen or the Norfolk or the Champagne. But the average Beyer Speed Figures for these races do not bear out that conclusion. While the Remsen winner averages only a 93 Beyer (perhaps because of the slightly more demanding distance), and the Norfolk winner averages a 95, they are only a few points behind the 98 average of the typical Juvenile winner. And the Champagne, at one mile, actually averages almost exactly the same Beyer as the Juvenile.

The history of at least six recent Kentucky Derby winners should confirm that this year's not-so-intrepid owners and trainers of top 2-year-olds are making decisions based on seriously faulty logic.

* Funny Cide earned a 103 Beyer at seven furlongs in late September of his 2-year-old season. The average Juvenile winner runs 98 or 99.

* Real Quiet ran a 102 Beyer in mid-December at 1 1/16 miles.

* Silver Charm ran a 97 at seven furlongs in early September.

* Sea Hero won the Champagne with a Beyer Figure of 99.

* Go for Gin earned a 95 in galloping home by 8 1/2 lengths in the Remsen.

* Thunder Gulch not only won the Remsen with an 89 figure, but also won the 1 1/16-mile Hollywood Futurity in December with a 99.

Clearly, winning a distance race with a solid Beyer late in one's 2-year-old year does not exhaust any worthy Kentucky Derby prospect.

A final example: Point Given. With a better trip he would certainly have won the Juvenile. But he lost by a head. And although he didn't win the Derby (probably because he was under-prepared and too close to a hot pace), he did go on to win the Preakness and the Belmont and was the unquestioned star of his crop that year. A top performance in the BC Juvenile didn't seem to set him back at all.

It's certainly true that no Juvenile winner has won the Kentucky Derby. But this should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, only one horse can be the Juvenile winner, while there are literally hundreds of other 2-year-olds pointing toward the Derby. And dozens of those talented runners have not even hit the radar screen by late October. They only begin to develop in the six months between the Breeders' Cup and the first Saturday in May. So we have one single (often lucky) Juvenile winner versus hundreds of other potential Derby prospects. Do the math and you'll see that there's nothing shocking or instructive in the fact that we've not seen a Juvenile winner wearing the roses.

If you're an owner or trainer with a sharp 2-year-old, you had be better advised to count your blessings and go for the $1.5 million in the BC Juvenile, because the prospect of any one of them winning the Derby is remote at best. But the not-so-intrepid 2003 owners and trainers believe they're enhancing their chances for Derby glory if they shut their seasons down early and, as a side effect, help to weaken the appeal of racing's biggest day. They've talked themselves into something. And it's not good for racing.