06/14/2001 11:00PM

Three horses with a shot in Affirmed


PHOENIX - The old saying, "Don't look behind you, something may be gaining," takes on a twist in Sunday's Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park.

You see, if a horse does well in the Affirmed, he gets the privilege of running next time against the likes of Millennium Wind, Hero's Tribute, and Crafty C.T. in the Swaps.

So the connections of Early Flyer, Bayou to the Moon, and Until Sundown, the three favorites in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 event for 3-year-olds, should not look ahead; get there first, then worry about it.

There is cause for optimism on all three fronts. Early Flyer is a confirmed top-class colt. Quality isn't the issue; the distance is. He can run with anyone's 3-year-old - maybe their elders, too - up to seven furlongs. Things get a bit murky beyond that. He tried a mile at Santa Anita in the San Rafael, and while no match for impressive, romping winner Crafty C.T. he did have a troubled trip. So we got no real confirmation of his distance abilities.

Then came trouble. Sent to Bay Meadows for the April 14 California Derby, hecouldn't fend off Takin It Deep. That horse came back to run sixth in Snow Chief April 28 (for Cal-breds) then last in the Alydar well behind Bayou to the Moon and Until Sundown.

Last month, Early Flyer had a strong win in the Laz Barrera, but again that was at seven furlongs, and he got an assist when favored Squirtle Squirt went ballistic early on the lead.

Early Flyer may well be favored, but his grip is tenuous. Quality may pull him through, but at 2-1 or so you can be excused for looking around some before settling on him.

Maybe Bayou to the Moon is your alternative. Bred for distance, he ran like it, winning the recent Alydar going two turns here over Until Sundown. (Considering he won the Alydar, wouldn't it be fitting for him to win the Affirmed?)

Surely Bayou to the Moon figures to progress Sunday - it seems every nice Dick Mandella horse always takes a step forward - but like Early Flyer he will take money, and with his style he's going to have to run them all down.

There's every possibility things will be tilted in Until Sundown's favor Sunday.

He has developed nicely. When he went into the May 23 Alydar he was coming off a nice win at Santa Anita. He didn't have a race over the track like winner Bayou to the Moon. Also, he did the hard work that day, pressing a solid pace. He moved to the lead into the lane, but couldn't fend off Bayou to the Moon, who sat back while three horses battled it out early.

This time Until Sundown has a race over the track. He has tactical speed but doesn't have to duel. He has every right to sit the good trip and turn the tables at 3-1 or so.

Belmont Week thoughts

*Point Given has no weakness, except maybe that he doesn't want to perform on the first Saturday in May. But before we get too caught up in the hyperbole and crown him the best, he must race his elders. As good as this 3-year-old crop is, don't think for a minute Tiznow, Captain Steve, or even Albert the Great and Include are going to be easy marks.

*Say Florida Sandy is a rock, a true pro who loves Belmont. He deserves a crack at the likes of Kona Gold and Caller One later this year in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. So what if he probably can't beat 'em going six furlongs?

And I would love to see a Kona Gold/Caller One match race come off. Usually I'm against such staged events but the timing is perfect: Both are pointing for Del Mar. Kona Gold has enough raw speed when called upon that he's not at an immediate disadvantage. Sure, Caller One is still quicker, and he's now a lot bigger and meaner than he was last year, but Kona's king until beaten.

*Bienamado has a chance to be the best American turf horse since, his sire, Bien Bien, Kotashaan, and Lure. He's a machine and seems to be getting better. As it stands now, how can he lose the Arlington Million?

*I'm still dumbfounded by the placement of Perfect Sting in the Manhattan. Why not the Just a Game an hour or so earlier, where she would have been 2-5 and could have won in a gallop? And couldn't Buckle Down Ben have run in next month's Dwyer? Did feeding him to the lions in the Belmont serve any purpose?