07/10/2005 11:00PM

Two divisions get some depth

Surf Cat earned his third consecutive triple-digit Beyer Figure Saturday.

NEW YORK - The victories by Lava Man in Saturday's Hollywood Gold Cup, and Surf Cat in the Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes on the Gold Cup undercard, certainly stand on their own merits. Lava Man crushed his field by nearly nine lengths and earned an excellent Beyer Speed Figure of 120, which topped even the strong 116 he received winning the Californian in his prior start. He also made it three wins from as many starts since getting the blinkers back on that he wore with far less success earlier in his career.

As for Surf Cat, he cruised home five lengths in front, earning his third straight triple-digit Beyer Figure, and evening his solid career record to 3 wins and 3 seconds from 6 starts.

But as impressive as Lava Man's and Surf Cat's scores were in a singular sense, they may have an even greater impact because of what they might mean for their respective divisions. You can debate the relative strength of this year's handicap division and the 2005 3-year-old class, which includes Surf Cat, until your voice gives out, and still not reach a satisfactory conclusion. Where there is little debate, however, is in the depth of quality in these divisions. Simply put, there is hardly any. But Lava Man and Surf Cat have arrived to provide some desperately needed depth at the top of the game.

The handicap division, of course, took the kind of hit that is hard to recover from when 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper was retired after his sensational victory in the Metropolitan Handicap. Then, Eddington, who finally recorded a meaningful win outside of Gulfstream Park when he won the Pimlico Special, and who at last seemed ready to fulfill his considerable potential, was retired just before he was to compete in a Suburban Handicap that he would have been strongly favored to win.

If that were the extent of the handicap division's troubles, the situation wouldn't seem so gloomy. But the problem is, there are a myriad of questions concerning several other prominent members of the handicap division who would have been likely candidates to help fill the void.

There is no question that Roses in May would be good enough to take control of the handicap division. Roses in May, however, does not have a published workout since he won the Dubai World Cup in March, although his connections have said he may breeze in the next week or so. But even when Roses in May gets racing ready, it's anyone's guess how effective he will be. It is a fact that most American horses are not the same after the trip to Dubai for the World Cup and the journey back, and of the few who did manage to regain peak form after this trip, it took some of them a long time to do it. Not encouraging is how Choctaw Nation and Congrats have done since finishing behind Roses in May in Dubai. Choctaw Nation was decidedly dull in the Californian, while Congrats failed as the favorite in a small stakes, and then was beaten almost 10 lengths by Lava Man in Saturday's Gold Cup as the second choice in the betting.

Rock Hard Ten is another. The winner of the Big Cap, Strub, and Malibu in his last three starts has no published works since May 15 because of "body soreness," and it may be October before he races again.

Second of June, runner-up in the Oaklawn Handicap, is out at least until late fall because of an ankle injury, while it has been 13 months (and counting) since Southern Image, winner of the 2004 Big Cap and Sunshine Millions, has been seen in public, although he did work six times between June 5 and July 4.

Given the enormous lead that Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex has over his contemporaries, the question in the 3-year-old male class is not one of divisional control. Instead, it's this: Is there anyone else in the division even worth thinking about?

Bellamy Road is certainly worthy, because he is much closer to the colt who was so sensational winning the Wood Memorial than the one who failed as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Bellamy Road is capable of having a big fall at his home base of New York, but he still does not have a published workout since the Derby.

There is less reason for optimism for other prominent names in the 3-year-old male division. Declan's Moon, last year's champion 2-year-old, is out until at least October. Kentucky Derby upsetter Giacomo is through for the year following surgery after his loss in the Belmont. Derby runner-up Closing Argument has no published workouts since May 16, while Florida Derby winner High Fly has no works since the Preakness. The fast Peter Pan Stakes winner, Oratory, is out for the year at least, if not for good, after recently undergoing surgery.

It is against this landscape that the strong performances by Lava Man and Surf Cat take on an even greater meaning. With a paucity of genuinely good older and 3-year-old males in action, the emergence of genuinely good, and hot, horses such as Lava Man and Surf Cat is most welcome, not to mention important.