03/02/2007 12:00AM

Three who caught my eye

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PHOENIX - It's no surprise that any 3-year-old who makes a big splash immediately has his name in lights as a potential Derby player. That's a given at this time of year. But it's also the time of year when we see potential major players for other divisions, as well as some 3-year-olds who - while maybe not ready for the rigors of the Triple Crown - might make noise later on.

Here are three horses that have caught my eye. It wouldn't shock me if we're talking about them come November.

Cobalt Blue: This 3-year-old son of Golden Missile looks like a good horse, and he might have the talent to back up that opinion. Trainer Doug O'Neill already has some talented 3-year-olds pointing for the Derby - Liquidity, Notional, and Great Hunter - and he has another potential player here. Considering that Cobalt Blue made his first start of the year on Feb. 14, which was also his first start since last August, and that he has yet to race in a route, there's no reason to rush him to make the Derby.

He made quite a first impression when he debuted last summer at Hollywood Park, but then soured at Del Mar as he ran poorly in the Grade 2 Best Pal. O'Neill regrouped and gave him plenty of time off, and his sprint return was a beauty. He bided his time just off the pace and then powered home when rider Garrett Gomez asked. The Beyer Speed Figure came back strong - 95 - and visually he looked super striding out. He's bred to go long; his sire was a Grade 1 route winner and a son of Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. El Prado on the bottom (he sired the likes of Medaglia d'Oro) also helps.

Cobalt Blue is expected to get his first route test next time out, likely in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 17. The danger is that we've seen other horses short on seasoning (Straight Man and Prosperous Bid, for example) try the Derby trail and get knocked backwards. As long as Cobalt Blue can avoid that, he's eligible to make noise in the division, even if it means after the Triple Crown.

Royal Highness: It's possible the country's best distance turf mare ran last weekend at Gulfstream - and no, I'm not referring to Honey Ryder.

Good as Honey Ryder is, we might have had a glimpse of the future queen - Royal Highness. It shouldn't be a shock. This German-bred began her career in Europe and was top-class. In 2005 she ran second in consecutive French Group 1 races, including the Prix Vermeille behind superstar Shawanda. Her 2006 form wasn't as strong, but she still was an excellent third in the Vermeille, this time behind monster horse Mandesha. She was sent to the U.S. and faced males in last October's Grade 1 Turf Classic at Belmont and handled herself well, finishing third behind English Channel.

Royal Highness's new trainer, Christophe Clement, moved her back against females in Aqueduct's Grade 2 Long Island. A strong rally got her second, beaten a half-length by Safari Queen. She was then given the winter off and returned to action in Gulfstream's Grade 3 The Very One Handicap last Sunday.

She was facing Safari Queen again, but this time the result was different. She bided her time a few lengths off the lead and then with a burst vaulted to the front going into the far turn. Safari Queen moved then as well, but did not keep up. Royal Highness, who earned a 100 Beyer, appears acclimated to her new surroundings, and a championship campaign is not out of reach. Clement knows what it takes, having guided Coretta to a campaign a few years ago that culminated with a second in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf behind champion Soaring Softly.

Ashkal Way: His name recently popped up on the Payson Park work tab for his first recorded drill of the year. Last year, Ashkal Way was considered by his Godolphin connections to be a cut below the top middle-distance turf horses, despite having won five of his first six U.S. starts, including the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch and Grade 2 Kelso. Godolphin decided that Ashkal Way would skip the Breeders' Cup Mile. Their opinion may have shifted now, however, as Ashkal Way went to Hollywood Park for the Grade 1 Citation Handicap and won in smashing fashion. He powered home to top a strong field, including numerous graded stakes winners, posting a 108 Beyer. Now a 5-year-old, Ashkal Way seems poised to take the next step and carry the blue silks to bigger and better things.