02/08/2006 1:00AM

'Stevie' adds to the mystery


PHILADELPHIA - This whole 2-year-old champion thing has gone from the bizarre to the absurd. In the 27 years since 2-year-old champion Spectacular Bid won the 1979 Kentucky Derby, more 2-year-old champions (14) have not made it to the Derby than have. And of the 13 that have survived long enough to get into the Derby, only four finished in the top three. Forty Niner (1988) is the only 2-year-old champ that really came close to winning the Derby.

It is about as logical as the St. Louis basketball team that went until its 20th game this season without either winning or losing consecutive games. Statistically, that should not happen. And neither should this.

It's easy to say the breed isn't as tough as it used to be.

Everybody knows that. Still, this should not be happening. Yes, there were some bogus 2-year-old champions. But did any of the horses that should have won the 2-year-old championship return to win the Derby? I can't think of any.

It does not make any sense. With that, it was nice knowing Stevie Wonderboy, reigning 2-year-old champ and now out with an injured ankle.

In the horse racing business, it is always time to move on.

There was a divergence of opinion on Barbaro's performance in the Holy Bull Stakes last Saturday. Obviously, it did not look as overpowering as his grass wins, but I thought he appeared to be very competitive to the wire and beyond. With stakes horses, the gallop-out can provide real clues to distance ability and class.

Jockey Edgar Prado told trainer Michael Matz that the fast-closing second-place horse, Great Point, was never going to get by Barbaro. I saw the same thing. To me, that is a very good sign, but we need to see more, especially how the unbeaten colt runs on a fast main track.

Barbaro's Beyer Speed Figure was a respectable 95. Obviously, he will have to improve 10 or so points to be a legitimate Derby contender. But 10 points really is nothing for 3-year-olds in the winter and spring.

A very sharp friend of mine said that he thought Barbaro's action was more suitable for grass, and that, off the Holy Bull, he did not think the horse was as good on the main track as he was on the grass.

"There are always a lot of questions to be asked and answered," Matz said. "Some horses are just winners."

That, of course, is the most intriguing part. There is simply a special allure about the unbeaten. It is why Lost in the Fog and Smarty Jones became so popular. It is that popularity, of course, that can lead to great betting opportunities - if you predict the right day for an unbeaten horse to go down and end up in the right place.

Assuming Barbaro and First Samurai both end up in the March 4 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, that might be a place to make a stand of some sort.

If you really believe in Barbaro, you might get a fair price to beat a colt with the obvious talent of First Samurai. If you are into the Beyers, you probably have to like First Samurai. The colt got a 103 Beyer when winning the Champagne last year and a 107 when second to Keyed Entry in Saturday's Hutcheson.

Now, Keyed Entry is by Honour and Glory, so you might not think Derby. But who knows about anything anymore?

This whole Triple Crown deal and conventional wisdom stopped being an entry years ago. How else do you explain the 2-year-old champion Derby drought or, for that matter, the Triple Crown drought?

Oh, wait a minute. Don't those two droughts almost perfectly coincide with one another? Only that nasty safety pin got The Bid beat.

Something else is getting the rest of them beat or making it so they can't even get into the starting gate.