Updated on 09/17/2011 9:40AM

As usual, 3-year-olds occupy center stage

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Storm Flag Flying is a standout among the 3-year-old fillies stabled at Gulfstream.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Maybe they have been overshadowed during a precious few seasons, such as when Cigar or Skip Away took up residence here.

But a winter at Gulfstream Park almost always means that 3-year-olds will be in the spotlight, and as the 2003 meet begins Friday, that theme remains the same. Horses whose connections are hoping to leave Florida with a major contender for the Kentucky Derby or Oaks soon will be taking their critical first steps toward those goals, and although there is an obvious leader among the fillies - Storm Flag Flying, who surely will be the champion 2-year-old filly of 2002 - there is considerably less certainty among the colts.

Sky Mesa, who was scratched as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile morning-line favorite after being diagnosed with a minor foot injury the day before the race, probably is the leading contender among south Florida 3-year-olds, but only in a lukewarm way.

Sky Mesa's trainer, John T. Ward Jr., said the Gulfstream series of 3-year-old races should be extremely interesting.

"I'm very confident that you're going to see a lot of late-blooming horses come to hand down here," said Ward. "You'll probably see a bunch of undiscovered horses start to come into the picture as these races unfold."

Sky Mesa, said Ward, is "looking grand" and is on schedule, while back to a daily galloping regimen at Palm Beach Downs. But, Ward said, "I wouldn't want to say right now when we'll bring him back. You miss a few days here or there, and suddenly you find yourself in an odd situation. Obviously, we just want to get to the Derby the best way we can."

Like Ward, trainers Nick Zito and Ken McPeek said they expect the Gulfstream meet to unfold in surprising ways.

"It looks like the California horses, Vindication and Kafwain, have kind of gone ahead of everybody else, at least for now," said Zito. "But you have to remember that at this time last year, you hadn't really heard of Buddha, or Medaglia d'Oro, or War Emblem, and look how they turned out."

"There's not a standout in the group we have down here," said McPeek. "Everything changes week by week. The way things looked in October and November can be a lot different than what you're seeing by March or April."

Zito said he has several horses in his barn that rate a legitimate chance at becoming top 3-year-olds.

"We've got some shots, some maidens that haven't really done anything yet," he said. "But we're like a lot of other guys. We'll be there most every Saturday or Sunday with a new one, trying to get them into the picture. Hopefully, in a few weeks we'll be talking about those horses in regard to the bigger races."

McPeek is particularly high on Ten Cents a Shine, an Ohio-bred who finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in only his second career start, and Powerful Touch, a two-time winner in New York. He said Powerful Touch might run in the first two-turn race of the Gulfstream series for 3-year-old males, the Jan. 18 Holy Bull Stakes, and that the Feb. 15 Fountain of Youth Stakes is a more likely starting point for Ten Cents a Shine. The last major race in the series is the March 15 Florida Derby.

D. Wayne Lukas, who has a large string of horses back at Gulfstream this year, said he is unsure how he will separate his most promising colts but that Scrimshaw, a recent Santa Anita allowance winner who probably is his top prospect, may be shipped to Florida for the Holy Bull.

Another accomplished colt who could surface in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull is Trust N Luck, the Calder-based colt who ran a 110 Beyer Speed Figure last year.

Still, horses with gaudy records, such as Trust N Luck, are the exception since quite possibly the most dangerous 3-year-olds in south Florida are existing in obscurity.

"There are a whole lot of horses under the radar right now," said McPeek.

Storm Flag Flying tops fillies

The pecking order atop the 3-year-old filly division is far less difficult to decipher. Storm Flag Flying, whose victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile kept her unbeaten, is going to be the 2-year-old filly champion, while two others, My Boston Gal and Ivanavinalot, accomplished enough last year to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Shug McGaughey, trainer of Storm Flag Flying, said he intends to bring his star filly back slowly, with the May 2 Oaks being the first major goal of the year. Carl Nafzger has said virtually the same thing about My Boston Gal. Both may not race until the Bonnie Miss March 14. Ivanavinalot, based at Calder with Kathy O'Connell, probably will begin earlier.