03/13/2007 12:00AM

Weekend winners have bright futures


NEW YORK - Although it is only mid-March, there were a lot of horses who saw stakes action this past weekend who could have a very big say in their respective divisions as the season progresses. Let's talk about a few of them.

Einstein. Saying Einstein was best in winning the Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial Saturday at Fair Grounds would be a gigantic understatement.

Einstein broke from the 11 hole. But with a marathon run to the first turn, jockey Robbie Albarado had no defense for getting Einstein caught six or seven wide around the first turn. Even the most casual horseplayer knows how costly ground loss like that is in turf races. Then, down the backstretch, Albarado somehow had Einstein in the position to be carried well out into the course when King's Drama pulled up and out of the race. Einstein finally got within the same zip code of the rail on the far turn, only to be caught in traffic, necessitating him being angled wide turning for home to launch his final run. Somehow, Einstein sustained that run to score.

TVG's Frank Lyons really said it all when he asked rhetorically after the Muniz, "Are you saying Einstein didn't ride Einstein?"

Granted, Einstein wasn't facing the greatest turf group ever assembled. But this is a horse who got to within nearly a length of the top-class English Channel last year, and since he is relatively lightly raced, he still has room for improvement. Perhaps most interesting is that Einstein has now won graded stakes at distances of nine furlongs and 1 7/16 miles. So until the big-time European horses start coming over here in the fall, Einstein's lack of distance prejudice means he will have a wide variety of lucrative races to choose from.

Rags to Riches. A lot of people thought she was the best 3-year-old filly in the nation after her win in last month's Las Virgenes, and she likely convinced most of the remainder with the way she dominated Sunday's Santa Anita Oaks. And the exciting thing about Rags to Riches is that she is still relatively inexperienced after only four starts, and with the pedigree of a late-developer, she is only going to get better.

How good is Rags to Riches? As loaded as owner Michael Tabor and trainer Todd Pletcher already are for the Kentucky Derby - this combination boasts such leading Derby candidates as Ravel, Circular Quay, and Scat Daddy - they are considering giving this filly a shot to run in the Derby. That speaks volumes as to how special Rags to Riches might be.

Balance and Ermine. These two ran one-two in Saturday's Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita, separated by only a half-length. And while Balance is rightfully being acknowledged as the best in the Santa Margarita - she was going away from Ermine at the wire after lacking racing room late on the far turn - Ermine ran big, too. Ermine was caught four wide around the first turn, and was second best by a long way.

Clearly, Balance is back in the form that made her California's best 3-year-old filly early last year and the favorite in last year's Kentucky Oaks. And Ermine, who really developed late last season, is better than ever. With the immensely talented Wait a While, a threat on both turf and dirt, focusing on grass, and after Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond's disappointing effort in Sunday's Rampart Handicap at Gulfstream, Ermine, to some degree, and Balance, in particular, have unobstructed runs to the top of their division.

Master Command. When Liquor Cabinet was scratched from Saturday's New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, that left Master Command the 1-5 favorite. And just like he did in last month's Mineshaft Handicap, the local prep for the New Orleans Cap, Master Command walked his beat with methodical efficiency.

With it being anyone's guess if or when Invasor and Discreet Cat will be able to replicate top form in this country after they compete in the Dubai World Cup later this month, with Lava Man still having to show he can produce a representative performance outside of Southern California, where he is dominant, and with the handicap division otherwise lacking much depth, a nice scenario is developing for Master Command. It is easy to envision Master Command encountering precious little resistance in any of the spring and summer's best races for older males in the eastern half of the country.

Circular Quay. Saturday was vindication day for Circular Quay in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He got the right trip - a strong, contested pace, and a lack of trouble that so plagued him when he made his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star - and went on to whip arguably the best group of horses he has ever beaten. In the process, Circular Quay dispelled any notion that he is a closing sprinter, and validated his status as a prime contender for the Kentucky Derby.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable still to be skeptical of Circular Quay's chances of winning the Kentucky Derby. While he did prove he can be very effective when he gets the right trip against seven opponents - and there will be plenty of races that will shape up like that for him down the road - it is still asking a lot for a deep closer like Circular Quay to get the right trip in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.