01/26/2005 1:00AM

Wait for one to rise from pack

Afleet Alex, versatile and highly competitive, had the toughest 2004 race schedule among male juveniles.

PHILADELPHIA - Declan's Moon got 104 more Eclipse Award votes than all the other 2-year-olds combined.

Was he really that much better than the others? Did he accomplish as much as some of them? Did he have a real campaign? Should skipping the Breeders' Cup be rewarded?

Those are all questions the voters might have considered. And they have spoken. What went down in 2004 no longer matters. What is going to happen in 2005 does matter.

Five horses got votes for 2-year-old champion. Declan's Moon got 188, followed by Afleet Alex (44), Wilko (22), Rockport Harbor (17), and Roman Ruler (1). One could make a case that any of them is the Kentucky Derby winner. Or the winner may be some horse who got no votes for 2-year-old champion - a horse like, say, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, or War Emblem.

The last three Januarys, I can say I knew a lot about Smarty Jones, a little about Funny Cide, and nothing about War Emblem.

I do know about the horses who got votes. Declan's Moon and Rockport Harbor are unbeaten. Afleet Alex ran in the toughest races, and, with better rides in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, might also be unbeaten. Wilko was terrific in his two American races, but was 2 for 10 in Europe. Roman Ruler had issues, but anybody who doubts his talent was not paying attention.

Which of these is the most likely to improve on his 2-year-old form?

One might examine pedigrees and wonder about Declan's Moon and Afleet Alex at the longer distances. One might also forget pedigrees and concentrate on performance. Nothing I saw from either of these colts suggests they are not going to run longer and do it successfully.

Declan's Moon never really ran fast except when he had to run really fast to beat Roman Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity. That day, Declan's Moon got a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Visually, his Hollywood Futurity was very impressive. He looks like a horse who enjoys the competition.

Afleet Alex always gave his best. He ran near the pace and from the back. He showed acceleration in all his races. There is nothing not to like.

I can't explain Wilko. I have no idea what went down in Europe. I know what I saw in America. He proved his Breeders' Cup win was no fluke when he ran third to Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Juvenile.

I saw Rockport Harbor's first three races in person. He was very impressive. He was even more impressive in the Remsen, which I saw on tape. It is one thing to win easily when loose on the lead. It is another thing to be challenged for a mile and refuse to let a very good horse like Galloping Grocer pass in the stretch. Like Declan's Moon, Rockport Harbor ran his big Beyer Figure when necessary, getting a 102 in the Remsen.

Roman Ruler is an interesting case. His Best Pal victory was awesome. Something obviously was wrong even when he won the Norfolk. And clearly this was an off-form horse when he ran fifth in the Breeders' Cup. Any 2-year-old who can go over a Beyer of 100 in August and September must be considered a threat for Churchill Downs.

So which one do I like the most? I really have no concrete opinion. I need to see more. And it won't be long now before we see whether one or more of these five is going to separate from the pack. Or if one or more drop out of it, because of the inevitable injury or just not enough improvement.

Like everybody else, I will be paying attention to developments in Arkansas (Afleet Alex, Rockport Harbor) and California (Declan's Moon, Wilko, Roman Ruler).

And, like all good Beyer believers, I shall be closely monitoring the progress of the fastest 2-year-old of 2004. That would be Lost in the Fog, the colt who won his maiden race at Golden Gate Fields earning a 102. He then won a stakes at Turf Paradise the day after Christmas and got a 109 when he won by almost 15 lengths.

That 109, by the way, has been confirmed. The second horse, Scottsbluff, got a 73 when he ran second to Lost in the Fog. Lead for Speed was third, getting a 71. Last Sunday at Turf Paradise, Lead for Speed beat Scottsbluff by a nose in the Rattlesnake Stakes. Scottsbluff finished 11 lengths ahead of the third horse. The winning Beyer was 77.

Lost in the Fog's last race was the day before voting concluded. My ballot had already been filled out. I knew I should have waited. Now, we are all waiting.