06/26/2005 11:00PM

Top filly anyone's guess at this point


NEW YORK - The status of the 3-year-old male division is crystal clear. By virtue of his overwhelming victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Afleet Alex has an enormous lead over his peers in the race for the year-end divisional championship, and with Ghostzapper retired, he is probably also the pro tem leader for Horse of the Year honors.

The only conceivable threat to Afleet Alex in his division is Bellamy Road. Although Bellamy Road has yet, through Sunday, to have a published workout since having a splint pin-fired following his seventh-place finish as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, he is still the horse who was absolutely jaw-dropping winning the Wood Memorial. If Bellamy Road comes back and has a really big fall, it is possible he could generate some sort of contest in the division with Afleet Alex. But it would take a really, really big fall from him.

Declan's Moon, last year's champion 2-year-old, is also expected back in the fall after having a knee chip removed in March. But Declan's Moon is not supposed to be ready to race until October, and one gets the sense he will not be rushed, meaning any sort of meaningful late-season push for a title is extremely unlikely.

No, with still around half the season to go, Afleet Alex is in great position to earn an Eclipse Award. It would take some extraordinary developments to alter that.

By contrast, with around half of the season in the books, the 3-year-old filly division is completely up for grabs. Sweet Catomine was a dominant 2-year-old filly champion last year, and she established the standard for her division this year with her victories in the Santa Ysabel and Santa Anita Oaks. But when Sweet Catomine was retired following her controversial participation in the Santa Anita Derby, she left the door open for one of her contemporaries to step up and take charge. That was two months ago, and even after Saturday's Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, which is one of those handful of races that has the uncanny knack of fashioning champion 3-year-old fillies, we are still waiting for someone to step up.

That is not meant to suggest that Sweet Catomine will still be any sort of factor when the year-end titles are decided, because that won't happen. Victories in January and March have no currency when Eclipse Award votes are cast in December.

That is also not to say there is anything terribly wrong with Smuggler, who was a predictable and game winner of the Mother Goose. The regally bred Smuggler (by Unbridled, out of champion Inside Information) was a solid second in the Acorn Stakes earlier in the month after attending a fast early pace. She projected to have a more relaxed trip in the Mother Goose while being a sure thing to relish a longer distance, and that is exactly how it played out.

The good things about Smuggler's Mother Goose win is she outfought the Black-Eyed Susan winner, Spun Sugar, who is a nice filly even though she has yet to win a meaningful race on a fast track. The race also helped demonstrate why Summerly has been a target of skeptics. When she won the Fair Grounds Oaks, Summerly got loose early through ridiculously slow fractions over an intensely speed-biased surface. Summerly had to work harder to get the lead when she won the Kentucky Oaks, but the final time of that race was very slow, resulting in a modest winning Beyer Speed Figure of only 90. Nevertheless, Summerly was the 6-5 favorite in the Mother Goose, but without a soft early lead, or punch-drunk opponents chasing her, she could be only third best.

The problem with Smuggler's Mother Goose is, like the Kentucky Oaks, the final time was slow. Smuggler's winning Beyer Figure was only 93. Of course, she is still developing, and she has license to get faster as she matures. In fact, she has already run faster. When she was second in the Acorn, she earned a Beyer of 98. But Smuggler is going to have to run faster if she hopes to win another important stakes and enhance her divisional standing. As noted, her division is wide open, and there are others who have the same aspirations she does.

Round Pond, who defeated Smuggler in the Acorn for her third straight stakes score, is an obvious contender for a divisional title. But she passed the Mother Goose because, being a late foal, her people are mindful of putting too much pressure on her too soon. Sis City, with her double-digit romps in the Ashland and Davona Dale, is also highly ranked. She has been working right along this month, but she is going to have to do something good soon to remove the sour taste of her meek fourth as the 3-5 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. Splendid Blended is also an intriguing member of this group. She was the second-best 2-year-old filly in California last year behind Sweet Catomine, and is a lock to improve on her close fourth after contesting a hot pace in the Acorn off a six-month layoff. Yet she has worked twice on turf in the last two weeks. Maybe she is going to change her focus.

With such parity, and with so many after a title that can go to only one, it could be the filly who is able to post the last big win will be the champion 3-year-old filly of 2005.