03/25/2005 12:00AM

This trio best viewed with a skeptical eye


PHOENIX - I've got questions about several 3-year-olds:

* Consolidator looked super romping in the San Felipe, but was it a true bill of his capabilities? The track was lightning-fast after being sealed to protect it from rain, and 20 minutes after the San Felipe a longshot sizzled through fractions of 21.29 and 42.65 seconds in a claiming sprint. That tells you how fast the track was. But everybody got to run over the same track and none ran like Consolidator.

The hard part is judging whether Consolidator is capable of this kind of effort on a different type of track. He ran huge last year in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, then could run only fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, so it's hard to know how good he is.

Even if Consolidator's race was legitimate, it might still be a strike against him. The last thing you want to see is a horse running that fast and hard in mid-March. Just last year Read the Footnotes and Second of June put up huge Beyer Speed Figures finishing one-two in the Fountain of Youth; Read the Footnotes finished seventh in the Derby and Second of June missed the race.

Then again, there are horses such as Charismatic, who like Consolidator was trained by D. Wayne Lukas. He ran huge in the Lexington and then came back and took the Derby and Preakness.

In other words, this is a pretty tough call.

* What now for Afleet Alex? He certainly ran like a sick horse in the Rebel. He seemed in a great position going to the far turn, looked ready to pounce on Rockport Harbor, and then vanished.

A big race by Afleet Alex would have reinforced the notion that he might have been best in last fall's BC Juvenile. Instead, the only thing we know now is that he's the bomb when it comes to sprinting. With his loss in the Rebel, he's 0 for 3 beyond seven furlongs. That shouldn't be a shock, as his sire, Northern Afleet, was best from six furlongs to a mile.

* Can Shamardal bring Derby glory to Godolphin? Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford had some interesting comments regarding Godolphin's previous forays to the Kentucky Derby. He said that Shamardal would easily be the best horse the Dubai royal family has sent to Kentucky. His said previous failures were due to two things - that the horses either weren't good enough or couldn't stay the trip.

Crisford reasons that neither will be a problem for Shamardal, Europe's top 2-year-old last year. The big issue for Shamardal, a son of Giant's Causeway, is the surface; presumably by the time you read this Shamardal will have answered that question in Dubai early Saturday morning.

"He has a pedigree that suggests he will handle U.S. tracks and that he should stay a mile and a quarter," Crisford said. "This is the first time we would have had a top-class horse to compete in the Derby."

Speed-filled Derby?

High Limit, Sun King, Bellamy Road, Rockport Harbor, High Fly, Consolidator, Going Wild, Spanish Chestnut, Texcess. What do they all have in common? They all seem to enjoy being on or near the lead. That could make things kind of crowded on the front end come May 7. When horses have won the roses on or near the lead they either did it by running out of their mind (Spend a Buck) or managed to slow things down up front (Winning Colors, Go for Gin). With so many quality runners possessing speed, a slow Derby pace seems unlikely, and that bodes well for the closers.

My top five early selections:

* Sweet Catomine: Not only looks like the real deal, but the Derby may set up perfectly for her.

* Rockport Harbor: Showed worlds of grit and fitness that belied his injury.

* Don't Get Mad: Finished nicely in the San Felipe; Real Quiet II?

* Consolidator: San Felipe debate aside, he showed he can freak.

* Sun King: Didn't dazzle at Tampa but steady progress is what you want now.