03/04/2005 1:00AM

Two Derby preps a risky strategy


PHOENIX - It hasn't gone unnoticed by racing pundits everywhere that until this weekend, five of the top Derby prospects (Declan's Moon, Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor, Wilko, and Roman Ruler) had yet to make an appearance in 2005. Afleet Alex was scheduled to run at Oaklawn on Saturday and then two more times before the Kentucky Derby. But Declan's Moon - who runs in the Santa Catalina at Santa Anita on Saturday - and the other three top prospects named above will likely receive just two prep races before the Derby.

It has been well publicized that this plan not been a path for success. Sunny's Halo in 1983 is the last 3-year-old to go into the Kentucky Derby off two preps and succeed. The strategy has worked just once in the last 57 years, and in this game of percentages, that's hardly encouraging.

The significance is not so much in the number itself but what the number means. Races mean furlongs. Furlongs mean fitness. It takes a fit horse to win the Kentucky Derby.

Certainly the capable trainers of this year's top five can put plenty of stamina-building works into their prospects. But there's nothing like racing fitness. It's the same with human professional athletes. Practice is fine, but it can't replace competing to get an athlete fit.

People often call Neil Drysdale a conservative trainer, and he is. But even he gave Fusaichi Pegasus five races in him in the five months leading up to the Derby. Charlie Whittingham certainly picked his spots carefully, but in the five months leading up to his 1986 Kentucky Derby victory he got five races into Ferdinand. Monarchos (four), War Emblem (four), Charismatic (seven), Sea Hero (four), and even Smarty Jones (four) used the winter to build a base.

No doubt the talent is there for Declan's Moon, Roman Ruler, Wilko, and Rockport Harbor, but can two races build a foundation strong enough to take on 10 furlongs, up to 19 other foes, and 130,000-plus screaming fans come the first Saturday in May?

Two for the ages

They were two females whose careers went from history to legend, and it struck me odd that their passing met with so little fanfare. I don't think I'm overstating it to say All Along and Estrapade may have been the two greatest female turf runners of the modern era.

We lost both last week: All Along, 26, was euthanized because of infirmities of old age, and Estrapade, 25, died, apparently of a heart attack.

All Along won four Group 1 or Grade 1 races in three countries in 41 days in 1983, defeating males in the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, Rothmans Inter-national at Woodbine, Turf Classic at Aqueduct, and Washington D.C., International at Laurel. Trained by Patrick Biancone for owner-breeder Daniel Wildenstein, she was subsequently honored as champion older horse in France and Horse of the Year and champion grass mare in the United States.

As a 5-year-old in 1984, All Along finished third to stablemate Sagace in the Arc and second to Lashkari in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood Park. She retired as the all-time leading female in terms of earnings, with $2,125,828 from 9 wins in 21 starts, and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.

From 13 foals, All Along produced 11 starters, 4 of them winners. Her lone stakes winner was the Group 2 winner and sire Along All, by Mill Reef. She was pensioned before the 2004 season.

Estrapade was the champion turf female of 1986, and remains the only female to win the Arlington Million. She was a terrific third in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita in 1986 in what many believe was its strongest running, with Manila (first), Theatrical (second) and Dancing Brave (fourth), champions all, surrounding her. She also defeated males in the Oak Tree Invitational. She ended up 12 for 30 for earnings of over $1.9 million. From six foals, she had two starters, both winners, including stakes winner Rice.

Sadly, Estrapade died while plans were under way to pension her at Michael Blowen's Old Friends on Alfred Nuckols Jr.'s Hurstland Farm property. A paddock and plaque were all ready for her.

Of course, these two never were able to reproduce themselves. They weren't supposed to. In racing it almost never happens. Pedigree gives you a head start, but you don't assume offspring of Mozart or Picasso or Ray Charles are going to be the equal of the parent, or remotely close, in talent. For All Along and Estrapade, it was likewise an unfair and unrealistic expectation.

Anyone who has access to old videos should go back and watch. We revel now in the exploits of fine turf mares such as Musical Chimes, Golden Apples, Wonder Again, and others, but if you want to see who provided the measuring stick go back to watch how these two did it.

It's unlikely we'll see many more who measure up.