02/04/2010 12:00AM

Where have all the 4-year-olds gone?


Santa Anita's Strub Stakes and Gulfstream's Donn Handicap honor the founding families of those racetracks, and both have histories to burn as significant events for older runners. At one time or another, one or the other was won by Round Table, Forego, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Cigar, Skip Away, and Silver Charm, and Gun Bow and Medaglia d'Oro stand as the only horses to win both, over successive seasons.

In 2010, however, the $500,000 Donn and the $200,000 Strub, both set for Saturday, stand as chilling examples of the toll taken by the Triple Crown on the depth chart at the top of the game.

The Strub is for 4-year-olds exclusively, at nine furlongs on the synthetic main. There are 10 of them entered Saturday, including Swaps Stakes winner Misremembered and Del Mar Derby winner Rendezvous.

The Donn, at nine furlongs on dirt, is designed for 4-year-olds and older, and 10 were entered in Florida, as well. (Let no one complain about field sizes, at least for a day.) Of those 10, only two are age 4 - Quality Road and Duke of Mischief - and of the dozen 4-year-olds running in the two events, zero participated in any of the three Triple Crown races of 2009. Zero.

This writer likes an energetic debate as much as the next guy, so before jumping into the pessimistic end of the pond, let's look at things from a different angle.

Perhaps the major competitors from the '09 classics, the cream of the 2006 crop, are still wintering peacefully at Camden and Aiken, content with their full and satisfying 3-year-old seasons, and we'll see them soon.

No? Then maybe those same competitors, deemed worthy a year ago of our classic events, are spread out over a new American racing landscape and on the verge of their 4-year-old debuts at tracks such as Oaklawn Park, the Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs, and, gasp, Sunland Park.

We'll see. There is reason to hope for the robust return of not only Rachel Alexandra, but also Mine That Bird, Musket Man, and the surgically repaired 3-year-old male champion, Summer Bird. As for the rest of the best from the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, they are gone, baby, gone.

It can be argued that this is not exactly a news flash, and that the pursuit of the Kentucky Derby and its Triple Crown sisters has forever reduced the level of the downstream talent pool. Even in these recessed times, the money on the table for 3-year-olds, front-loaded to the first five months of the year, is astounding compared to later opportunities. What owner or trainer would not be tempted to push hard and early? Apparently, though, it is too much to ask those in the throes of Derby fever to give at least a moment's thought about ongoing careers for their 3-year-olds. Perhaps it has become an impossible equation, with so much at stake early and so little incentive later, beyond some pie-in-the-sky Dubai jackpot or the mad scrum of the Breeders' Cup.

Four of the dozen 4-year-olds in this year's Strub and Donn tiptoed right to the edge of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, then were backed away.

Quality Road was the most famous of those, ranking as the pre-Derby choice until he was betrayed by a cracked hoof. The injury, thankfully minor, spared him the embarrassment of being stomped by the otherworldly Mine That Bird on Derby day, and now Quality Road has returned to assume his place at the top of the pile again.

From the Strub field, Square Eddie, a precocious teen, was rushed into last year's Lexington and found wanting. To their credit, his people brought him home, but nothing much has worked out since. Massone hit the board in the Blue Grass, always a hopeful sign, but his owner hadn't even nominated his colt to the Derby, so there.

Then there was Rendezvous, an understudy in the Jerry Hollendorfer barn to 2009 Derby colt Chocolate Candy. Rendezvous was on the scene in Kentucky, but after running a jangled fourth in the Derby Trial, the son of Victory Gallop was recalibrated for the grass. It worked at Del Mar, by a nose over Battle of Hastings, and Rendezvous had arrived.

He has not won since, although his last race, in the San Fernando after a break of two months, was promising. Rendezvous was third, beaten 1 3/4 lengths, by the now retired Papa Clem.

"One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that on these tracks, you've really got to be fit, and a race over them can do a world of good," said Dan Ward, Hollendorfer's Southern California assistant. "Look at Papa Clem and Gabby's Golden Gal. They both really improved with a race under their belt."

Hollendorfer has been in the thick of the races for older horses at Santa Anita the last two years, with Santa Anita Handicap winner Heatseeker in 2008 and in 2009 with the talented Blue Exit, who was tipped as a good one with his Strub performance but then suffered fatal injuries in the subsequent Handicap.

Most of the attention paid to Hollendorfer this Saturday will be due to Blind Luck, a filly who makes her 3-year-old debut in the Las Virgenes Stakes. Blind Luck was so impressive winning the Hollywood Starlet in her last start, there are those already conceding Hollendorfer his third Kentucky Oaks. Rafael Bejarano rides both Hollendorfer runners.

"You've got to wait, then get him wound up on the turn, and don't stop him once he starts," Ward noted. "If Bejarano can ride Rendezvous like he rides Blind Luck - just get him back and sit, sit, sit, then get him in the clear - I think he's going to run a lot better that way."