11/14/2005 12:00AM

Waiting for next year

Three who could reach the top as 4-year-olds in 2006: Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo (above), Santa Anita Derby winner Buzzards Bay, and 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The dreamers among racing's most ardent followers are rarely satisfied with a feel-good movie. They want the real thing. So they invest their hopes in the season to come, with its promise of Stevie Wonderboy, Henny Hughes, and First Samurai among 3-year-olds to be, and a mouth-watering list of approaching 4-year-olds to flesh out the drama.

At various times during the 2005 campaign, the older runners Saint Liam, Ghostzapper, Roses in May, and Rock Hard Ten separated themselves from the rest of the division as horses of extraordinary talent. Unfortunately, there was never a day on which even two of the four showed up with their best in play, unless you count the Donn Handicap, when a tightly knit Saint Liam easily handled the comebacking Roses in May.

Rock Hard Ten is supposed to return in 2006, and if Richard Mandella has his way, he will. But The Rock has been a hard horse to follow with enthusiasm. He ran just three times in 2005, not exactly iron-man material, and he has yet to reproduce his best race on the road. If he makes it back, there will be reason to rejoice. If not, well, at least we knew him when.

Let's turn instead to the foals of 2002 who could give Rock Hard Ten a tussle, or even fill his shoes. The East has Flower Alley and maybe Bellamy Road, if he can finally shake his growing pains, while out West there are at least three young guns who could make life interesting at the top.

On paper, their accomplishments ring true - a Kentucky Derby winner, a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, and a Santa Anita Derby winner. In reality, though, they are one-hit wonders, with a fan base still waiting for them to make good on heightened expectations.

Giacomo, certainly, has the most to prove. The impact of his 50-1 victory in the Kentucky Derby for Ann and Jerry Moss was diluted (although not for Ann and Jerry Moss) by conclusive losses to Afleet Alex in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Surgery on a knee (bone flake) and ankle (bone chip) gave Giacomo some cover for those setbacks. But if he is to be taken seriously as an older horse, he needs to return with a vengeance, beginning with races like the San Fernando Stakes and Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds, and then the Santa Anita Handicap.

"He's become a bigger, strong version of what he was last spring," said his trainer, John Shirreffs. "He doesn't have that peaked butt he used to have. We always knew he was never physically as mature as a lot of the horses he was running against. Now he's had a chance to catch up."

Giacomo has yet to record an official workout, but he has been galloping and jogging mile after mile at Hollywood with a regularity interrupted only by last week's bad weather.

"Coming back from a layoff, I like to put off working them as long as possible," Shirreffs said. "Once a horse starts, they get in that routine."

Wilko, the winner of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and sixth in this year's Kentucky Derby, has been clicking along on a steady work routine for more than a month, including a half-mile at Hollywood Park last Sunday morning. Craig Dollase, who trains Wilko for Paul Reddam and Susan Roy, is taking dead aim on Santa Anita's opening-day Malibu Stakes, at seven furlongs, with the San Fernando and Strub to follow.

Wilko has not run since being virtually eased in the Preakness, on May 21. Like Giacomo, he had a bone chip removed from an ankle, which in turn gave him time to grow out a set of quarter cracks nagging both front feet.

"They say no foot, no horse," Dollase said. "Well, he had no feet. But now we've been able to take the patches off, and he doesn't need any sort of special shoeing. He's like a shiny new toy."

Ron Ellis can say the same thing about Buzzards Bay, and without exaggeration. Ellis took over for Jeff Mullins in July, after Buzzards Bay was sold through Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky for $725,000 to Gary Broad. For the money, Broad got the winner of the Santa Anita Derby and fifth-place Kentucky Derby finisher, who had just run a stinker in the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"He had a couple issues I was concerned about, but he'd already had a solid year," Ellis said. "So we regrouped, gave him two weeks off, and started training him again. He didn't need any special treatments."

Buzzards Bay, a bright chestnut with white trim, made his debut for Broad and Ellis in the Discovery Handicap, early on Breeders' Cup Day at Belmont Park, with a respectable third to Magna Graduate and Scrappy T. Ellis said the master plan has Buzzards Bay back in action opening day at Santa Anita in the one-mile Sir Beaufort Stakes on the grass. A month later, taking advantage of his Florida breeding, Buzzards Bay would turn up in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, also at Santa Anita.

"Then, after that, hopefully the Santa Anita Handicap," Ellis said. "I think he's definitely got the quality for a race like that."