04/06/2009 12:00AM

Tackling the 2-year-olds


We are just beginning to see early-season races for 2-year-olds. Keeneland Racecourse carded two on its first weekend and, not surprisingly, both were won by horses trained to the minute by Wesley Ward.

In the first of these races, on Friday, opening day, a Ward-trained filly beat male horses in every way possible. Jealous Again, the favorite at 3-2, broke like a bullet from the gate, set a brisk uncontested pace and improved her position all the way to the wire to win by 11 3/4 lengths in fast time of 50.73 for 4 1/2 furlongs. In short, the precocious youngster was long gone from the fall of the flag.

The next day, the Ward-trained juvenile filly Aegean followed a similar script to win a 4 1/2-furlong race against her own sex. She stopped the timer in 50.72, just .01 off the time posted the day before by Jealous Again. Although she, too, was the favorite, her odds of 2-1 seemed a bit generous considering the success Ward has enjoyed with first-time starters and with 2-year-old maidens.

Here are some stats extracted from Daily Racing Form handicapper Dan Illman's review of 2-year-olds, which appears most days on drf.com. Illman, whose Trip Handicapping DVD is a worthwhile addition to any horseplayer's library, provides visitors to drf.com with stats and analysis for 2-year-old maiden races that players can utilize in their own way.

w Ward is 40 for 126 (32 percent) over the past five years with juvenile debut runners.

w Ward is 6 for 15 (40 percent) over the past five years with juvenile debut runners at Keeneland.

w Ward was 2 for 5 (40 percent) with all debut runners in 2008 (both juvenile debut winners with Lasix and blinkers).

The above info may not have led Illman to pick Aegean to win this specific maiden race, but his intent as always was to provide insightful information that you may incorporate into your own methods. Frankly, that is my mission in these columns and other similar forums: to pass on handicapping ideas, to improve your game, and in some prerace and post-race analysis to provide a perspective that may support your own handicapping or give you new windows to look through.

In the case of the juvenile crop about to flood the entries from coast to coast, we should know that early-season races will be won most often by horses who are bred to be precocious sprinters - horses who are most likely to succeed in races from two to five furlongs during the spring and early summer. In most cases these fast-breaking youngsters will be trained by horsemen with proven track records of having delivered many fit horses ready to fire at first or second asking.

As Ward's prolific stats demonstrate, he is a bona-fide ace at such things. But there are others who deserve equal billing.

Ronny Werner, who usually will unveil a winner or two at Keeneland, is another outstanding horseman who regularly unveils early-season 2-year-old winners. The same is true for 2008 Eclipse Award winner Steve Asmussen, who has an army of 2-year-olds and will be a factor in juvenile sprints from April at Keeneland through Saratoga in August.

Given the need for sharp early speed and precocious development, it is not surprising that breeding can be an essential part of early-season 2-year-old handicapping. Prominent speed sires include Trippi, a great-grandson of Mr. Prospector who sired Jealous Again, and Posse, whose youngsters tend to do their best work during the first half of the year. The simple fact is that young horses who have the fabulously fast Mr. Prospector in their pedigrees usually are well equipped to win early.

In my forthcoming book, "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century," which is a major revision and update to the original "Betting Thoroughbreds," the potency of breeding as a handicapping factor is addressed in considerable detail. The material includes various lists pertaining to a horse's tendencies to sire turf or synthetic track performers; wet track runners; sprinters; long-distance types; as well as precocious early-season winners of abbreviated sprints.

In addition to Trippi and Posse, who also traces back to Mr. Prospector, my list of extremely potent sires of early-season juvenile winners includes Whywhywhy, Hook and Ladder, Crafty C.T., Freespool, D'wildcat, City Zip, Songandaprayer, Delaware Township, and Zavata. Newcomers sired by these high-octane sprinters are win threats in abbreviated sprints wherever they appear.

Many will win at first asking; few will hold their form beyond six furlongs. Yet, the progeny of the very fast Smoke Glacken also may be precocious. But, just as the sons and grandsons of Mr. Prospector are not limited to abbreviated sprints, the offspring of Smoke Glacken are multi-dimensional.

Smoke Glacken is a potent sire of wet-track horses, and the late Storm Cat and some of his sons have proven to be preeminent sires of classy individuals who can do just about anything.

While fast workouts can be useful clues to the performances of untested youngsters - especially works in company with other horses, including older runners - it is my experience that the most reliable winning factors are linked to trainers with proven success with such horses and to the horse's inherent bloodlines designed to bring out considerable speed at very short distances. Now is the time to take advantage of this - in the waning days at Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita, and soon enough at Hollywood Park, Churchill Downs, and Belmont Park.

Triple Crown prep races

I Want Revenge's adventurous victory in the Wood Memorial, Pioneerof the Nile's pace-pressing win over stretch-running Chocolate Candy in the Santa Anita Derby, and Musket Man's good score over modest rivals in the Illinois Derby on Saturday confirmed earlier prep race results. At this point, I Want Revenge and Pioneerof the Nile join Florida Derby winner Quality Road and Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk as the four leading contenders for America's most famous race.

Chocolate Candy, Musket Man and whoever emerges with a strong performance from the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland this Saturday probably will be looked upon as longshot upset possibilities on Kentucky Derby Day, along with the pair from Dubai, Regal Ransom and Desert Party.

With three weeks to Derby Day, here are my top 10 contenders.

1 - Pioneerof the Nile: Won Santa Anita Derby despite forcing pace; probably better from mid-pack.

2 - I Want Revenge: Improved on dirt, overcame bad start to devour weak Wood field.

3 - Quality Road: Highly rated stalk-and-go Florida Derby win, but has quarter crack issues.

4 - Dunkirk: Strong, sweeping move for second in Florida Derby; may need defections to get in.

5 - Win Willy: Flew home to win Rebel at Oaklawn; we'll find out in Arkansas Derby if he's legit.

6 - Chocolate Candy: Rallied wide into slow pace for good Santa Anita Derby second; room to improve.

7 - Friesan Fire: Dominated relatively weak Fair Grounds races.

8 - Desert Party: Lost UAE Derby to stablemate Regal Ransom; has more talent than most.

9 - Musket Man: Win machine has beaten softer in last two; can't eliminate.

10 - Old Fashioned: Inexplicably tired in Rebel; must rebound in Ark. Derby.