02/17/2004 12:00AM

Too fast for his own good?

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BOSTON - The festival of 3-year-olds on Fountain of Youth Day turned into a big-Beyer Speed Figure bonanza. In eight separate races for 3-year-olds, the winning speed figures ranged from a very impressive 90, in a first-level allowance score, all the way up to a stunning 113 in a legendary stakes battle.

Where do all these numbers rank? Are we looking at a potential bumper crop of top 3-year-olds?

Last Saturday, we had everything from an allowance win (90 Beyer) by Very Formal M.D., to a maiden sprint win by Forest Danger (91), to a seven-furlong, wire-to-wire crusher from Value Plus (108), followed by the filly Madcap Escapade winning the six-furlong Old Hat Stakes with a huge figure of 108, and the very promising allowance victory of Swingforthefences (96) at 1 1/8 miles. And everyone was interested in the return performance of Birdstone, who coasted to a relatively easy win in a mile-and-70-yard allowance race. Unfortunately, his Beyer came back only a 93 - somewhat on the light side for a horse with Derby ambitions.

In the Hutcheson Stakes, Limehouse had a perfect trip up the inside to catch the pacesetting Deputy Storm. Both horses were running after substantial layoffs, so it's hard to guess where they're heading. But the Beyer number was not overwhelming. Limehouse's figure of 99 is right around the average of 98.5 for recent renewals of the Hutcheson.

But this was all mere prelude to the grand climax of the day: the Fountain of Youth. Since 1990, the average winning Beyer for this race has been 101. More than half of the winners have run within a point or two of that number. The great aberration came in 1998, when Lil's Lad turned in an astounding 113 to defeat Coronado's Quest and Halory Hunter. The next-highest winning Beyer was 105. In the past decade and a half, that performance by Lil's Lad has stood out sharply above all other recent efforts in the Fountain of Youth. Until this year.

Saturday's dramatic stretch duel between Read the Footnotes and Second of June matched Lil's Lad's remarkable 113. To put this number in a wider context, the very promising Derby prospect Eurosilver returned this year on Feb. 4 and won an allowance race at seven furlongs with a Beyer of 96. Master David won the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 8 with a Beyer of 99. Action This Day, after a wide trip and a late-race stall, finished behind Master David with a figure of 97.

The figure for this year's Fountain of Youth is big. Too big. In fact, it's so big that, since 1990, only 10 other horses on the road to the Derby have recorded equal or faster Beyers in two-turn preps (see chart above right). And their Derby fates are not encouraging.

What do all these ten horses have in common? Not one of them won the Kentucky Derby.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that War Emblem did run a 112 Beyer in his final prep before he won the Derby in 2002 - although he had a relatively easy trip in that effort, unlike the draining, head-and-head struggle down the stretch in this year's Fountain of Youth. And last year Funny Cide earned a 110 in the Wood Memorial just before capturing the Derby. Two other Derby winners, Silver Charm (110) and Fusaichi Pegasus (111), also approached the level of Read the Footnotes's figure. Obviously, it makes no sense that there should be an arbitrary cutoff point at 113 and above. But the evidence of history is still rather compelling: The extreme stress of such a high Beyer in the weeks and months before the Derby is not the recommended path to victory on the first Saturday in May.

Second of June, the runner-up to Read the Footnotes on Saturday, has already fallen victim to the tremendous pressure of last Saturday's classic. He suffered a fractured cannon bone and will not return to the races for at least eight or ten months.

How will Read the Footnotes react to his monumental effort after a layoff?

Since it's only the middle of February, perhaps he has enough time to recover. Perhaps he still has a chance to bounce back and fire his best shot on the first day in May. Perhaps. But I wouldn't bet on it.