12/28/2004 1:00AM

Watch out for Andromeda's Hero

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LAS VEGAS - There are 18 weeks until the 2005 Kentucky Derby, but from now on every young horse that wins a maiden race impressively will be talked about as a possible Derby contender - even those without the benefit of extensive racing experience at age 2.

The tried-and-true methods of preparing a horse for the rigors of the Triple Crown no longer apply to today's watered-down version of the Thoroughbred in this country.

America's fascination of breeding for speed and showing little regard for stamina - which began primarily in the 1970's - combined with the widespread use of medication, has become clearly evident and has irrefutably changed and weakened the breed.

How much have times changed? In 1956, Round Table made his 2-year-old debut at Hialeah Park in a three-furlong sprint in February. He started nine more times at 2 and started seven times at 3 before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. Round Table raced 23 times at age 3, an unfathomable number for today's fragile racehorse.

The last three Kentucky Derby winners combined made only eight starts at age 2. Smarty Jones won both of his races, Funny Cide won all three of his starts, and War Emblem won 2 of 3 starts. Horses are averaging fewer starts in their lifetime and need much more time between races. We are now breeding sprinters and asking them to run 1 1/4 miles. And the cycle continues in a downward spiral as racetracks keep shortening their major stakes to accommodate today's stamina-challenged horses. Only two dirt races for 3-year-olds remain at the true classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, the Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes, and a handful of once-important stakes have been reduced to nine furlongs, diminishing their significance, such as the Swaps and Super Derby. The Swaps was run at 1 1/4 miles prior to 1995 and the Super Derby was also 1 1/4 miles prior to 2002. The historic Dwyer Stakes was run at varying distances but has been reduced from 10 furlongs to nine furlongs, and since 1994, to its current distance of 1 1/16 miles.

Thus, when a young horse bred to win at classic distances performs well at 2, it is noteworthy.

Andromeda's Hero won a nondescript seven-furlong maiden race at Calder last Sunday against an overmatched field, but it was the way he won along with his imposing pedigree that caught the eye. He is the third colt by the exciting freshman sire Fusaichi Pegasus to stir the imagination of both the media and racing fans this year. First it was Roman Ruler, who won the Best Pal and Norfolk stakes before disappointing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, followed by Fusaichi Samurai, the $4.5 million purchase who lived up to his pre-race hype winning his debut on Dec. 11 at Hollywood Park in style.

The only son of Mr. Prospector to win the Kentucky Derby, the late-developing Fusaichi Pegasus finished second in his only race at 2 on Dec. 11, and won his maiden at age 3. But as one of this year's most promising freshman sires, he has been fast out of the gate, getting 16 winners and four stakes winners. The best news is that his offspring, all from high quality female families, are bred to be even better as 3-year-olds.

Off slowly in an 11-horse field, Andromeda's Hero finished third in his debut on Oct. 17 at Keeneland at about seven furlongs. It was a learning experience for a colt plucked out of the 2003 Keeneland September yearling sale by Nick Zito, on behalf of Robert LaPenta, for $310,000. In his second start last weekend Andromeda's Hero was immediately into the seven-furlong race, chasing the speed and then drawing off to a seven-length victory. His lengthening stride at the end of the race was indicative of a colt who wants more ground, which his pedigree supports.

Fifth dam full sister to Assault

Andromeda's Hero descends from a prolific King Ranch female family that traces in tail-female line to Masda, a full sister to Man o' War. It is commonplace for Thoroughbreds to have full or half-siblings to famous racehorses in their pedigrees, but successive generations of dams producing high quality individuals are always noteworthy.

His dam is the Storm Bird mare Marozia, a daughter of stakes winner Make Change, who was one of the best 3-year-old fillies of her generation. Make Change, by the powerful stamina influence Roberto (Hail to Reason), finished second to Goodbye Halo in the 1988 Mother Goose Stakes, to Maplejinsky in the Alabama Stakes and Monmouth Oaks, and to Banker's Lady in the Ladies Handicap.

His third dam is the stakes-placed Equal Change, who had a pedigree to run three miles. Equal Change was by Belmont and Travers Stakes winner Arts and Letters (Ribot) and out of the unraced Cavan mare Fairness. By a Belmont Stakes winner (and Horse of the Year) out of a mare by another Belmont Stakes winner, Equal Change was bred to be at her best at 1 1/2 miles, and indeed, her best performance was a game second to Ruffian in the 1975 Coaching Club American Oaks. Fairness also produced Solford (Nijinsky II), a champion miler in Ireland, and the multiple stakes-winning sprinter No Bias (Jacinto).

Fairness was a daughter of Equal Venture, an unraced full sister to 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault. Fairness was also a half-sister to major stakes winners Prove Out (Graustark), Saidam (Never Say Die), and Heartland (Bold Ruler). Prove Out easily defeated Secretariat over a sloppy track at 1 1/2 miles in the 1973 Woodward Stakes and romped to another lopsided victory one month later in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

With Fusaichi Pegasus on top and a powerful King Ranch female family on the bottom, Andromeda's Hero has the pedigree to take him all the way to Louisville.