03/02/2009 12:00AM

This year's 3-year-old crop is looking up

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NEW YORK - When the year began, there was a fair degree of concern about this season's 3-year-old crop. The two most accomplished 2-year-olds of 2008, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and divisional champion Midshipman and two-time Grade 1 winner Vineyard Haven, were in Dubai. Over the years, we have seen enough examples of accomplished American 2-year-olds who figuratively if not literally disappeared after transferring to Dubai. And it is just for that reason that the announcement Sunday that Midshipman will miss the Triple Crown because of injury did not have quite the same impact it would have if the same misfortune befell a more "conventional" reigning 2-year-old male champion.

Old Fashioned was really the only other 2-year-old male last year who could have been mentioned in the same breath with Midshipman or Vineyard Haven. That Old Fashioned achieved such status on the strength of a Remsen victory that, while impressive both visually and against the clock, was also negotiated with the help of an easy, uncontested lead and soft competition, spoke to the scarcity of accomplishment and quality in his class.

But of late, skepticism has given way to optimism. It started with Old Fashioned's successful 3-year-old debut in the Southwest Stakes. True, Old Fashioned ran only fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 93 in his return. But Old Fashioned won drawing away in an effort he can build on, after conceding the early lead to an opponent who can really run, Silver City, and after tracking fast early fractions.

Then, Dunkirk followed with his sensational allowance victory at Gulfstream Park, a score he managed to accomplish in blowout fashion despite racing so wide that he might have gone a sixteenth of a mile farther than his opposition. Yes, Dunkirk did not race at 2, so if he even makes it to the Kentucky Derby, he would be attempting to become the first in 127 years to win it without a 2-year-old start. But Dunkirk has freakish talent, and as Big Brown demonstrated last year, talent trumps experience in today's Kentucky Derby.

On Saturday, Quality Road and The Pamplemousse maintained the newfound upward momentum of this 3-year-old class with impressive wins in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

For my money, The Pamplemousse's win in the Sham nosed Quality Road for the performance of the day. I don't say that because I am chagrined that I abandoned my previous role as chairman of the Quality Road fan club when he lost in his first start this year - although I am. I say that because the Sham was a truly run race, and The Pamplemousse ran strongly every step of the way.

The Pamplemousse set a fast early pace, although it's dicey to compare it with the only other two-turn race on the Pro-Ride main track on Saturday's Santa Anita card, a maiden claimer in the opener. But The Pamplemousse's fractions of 23.08 seconds, 46.51, and 1:10.29 were clearly quick (especially compared with the fractions in that maiden claiming route of 24.33, 48.57, and 1:12.40). The way he turned back Take the Points, who was coming off a triple-digit Beyer win in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream, made it all the more compelling.

People keep expecting The Pamplemousse to step on his pedigree (by Kafwain from a Rubiano mare), which is sprint-oriented. But so far there's no indication it will. The Pamplemousse is 3 for 3 around two turns (and 0 for 2 sprinting), and the Beyer Figure of 103 he earned for his six-length win in the nine-furlong Sham gives him the highest two-turn Beyer of any prominent Derby candidate.

Quality Road ran strongly, too, in the Fountain of Youth. He capitalized on a sweet-pace stalking trip, earned a stellar Beyer of 113, and showed everyone what all the fuss was about when he won his debut two starts back at Aqueduct on the same day Old Fashioned won the Remsen. But while it's not Quality Road's fault, the Fountain of Youth was not, to be candid, a truly run race.

There was a ton of speed on paper in the Fountain of Youth, none faster than Notonthesamepage, who set fractions of 21.98 and 44.73 under a hold when he won the Spectacular Bid Stakes over the track in his last start. But on Saturday, Notonthesamepage was not sent to the front, and that turned the race upside down. Instead of a potential opening quarter in a scorching 22 and change, we got an opening quarter run in a glacial 23.83 seconds. The stalker/closer This Ones for Phil, of all horses, found himself on a clear early lead, and that's not how he wants to run. Who knows how much the closer Beethoven, who finished a distant third, was compromised by the slow opening quarter?

Notonthesamepage finished seventh, and his trainer, Wesley Ward, said he bled badly.

In a way, you can see how the connections of a horse like Notonthesamepage, who already know their horse is fast, would want to find out if their horse can rate effectively, which might enable him to get longer distances. But, it's also fair to ask if such an abrupt change in tactics is fair to the betting public. Handicapping decisions were made, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were wagered, on the Fountain of Youth in the expectation that Notonthesamepage would go for the lead like he had in all of his best performances. When he didn't, it all went down the drain.