01/08/2007 1:00AM

Start taking notes now


We're a long way from the Kentucky Derby, but the stakes program for 3-year-olds on both coasts already has produced a few horses to watch, with more likely to be uncovered in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 13. Even more important, all of these early season stakes provide a gilt-edged opportunity for horseplayers to make important judgments about dozens of 3-year-olds who will be seen in the past performance lines of numerous races during the next few months.

At Aqueduct on Jan. 6, favored Johannesburg Star was defeated by longshot Pink Viper in the 1 1/16-mile Count Fleet Stakes. But, Pink Viper did have the advantage of a faster inner rail path when he made his winning inside run through the stretch while Johannesburg Star was wide throughout and gaining slowly in the final furlong, as if he will benefit from the experience.

Last Sunday, at Santa Anita, the Bob Baffert-trained E Z Warrior was a sharp winner of the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes in his 3-year-old debut to confirm the impression he is one of the fastest young horses in the country.

In 2006, E Z Warrior won both of his starts, including the Hollywood Juvenile Championship despite a troubled start, but was sidelined due to lingering sore shins through the final six months of the year.

Still, as a son of Exploit out of a Carson City mare, EoZ Warrior would seem to have very little chance to carry his speed at the graded stakes level beyond a mile, if that far.

Also last Sunday, at Gulfstream Park, the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes produced at least two potentially useful 3-year-olds, including one that deserves a chance to advance into the better class races on the Triple Crown chase.

The winner, Buffalo Man, was scoring his fourth victory in six career outings, all for trainer Cam Gambolati, who has done quite well in south Florida while maintaining a relatively low profile on the national racing scene since training 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck to a Horse of the Year campaign. Buffalo Man seems most likely to reach the limits of his miler's pedigree if he runs in the nine-furlong Holy Bull stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 3.

On the other hand, Out of Gwedda, the horse Buffalo Man defeated in the Spectacular Bid, turned in a fine effort to suggest he will be a much tougher customer in the Holy Bull, or the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 17.

By a son of stamina influence Cox's Ridge, Out of Gwedda deserves extra credit for his strong form in sprints and would seem eligible for major improvement when stretched out another few furlongs and asked to go two turns. That is in fact the kind of assessment that horseplayers must make at this time of year while a new pecking order is being established for 3-year-olds as they take their first baby steps on the long and winding road to the Triple Crown chase.

Indeed, serious-minded horseplayers should not miss the opportunity to begin cataloging the better 3-year-old sprinters, milers, and Derby prospects that emerge from these and all the other early season stakes.

Ask yourself if you can identify which of the winners and other good performers in these and other early season stakes are less likely to beat similar or better competition at the next level. Which ones seem improved over their 2-year-old form and which ones will need more racing, more distance, or more maturity to become important factors in the division? Keeping a discerning eye on stakes for 3-year-olds is one of the quickest, most efficient ways to take your game to the next level as the season moves along.