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Afternoon Deelites Heads Derby Prospects

March 19, 1995|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

HALLANDALE, Fla. — After the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was run last fall, most racing fans concluded that the 1995 Triple Crown campaign was going to be another dreary one. Timber Country won America's major 2-year-old race in slow time against an uninspiring field, leaving little reason to believe that this generation was going to produce notable 3-year-olds.

Yet the sport is now filled with excitement about the current group of Derby-age colts. Several late bloomers recently have shown great promise, but most of the attention has been centered on undefeated Afternoon Deelites. He still isn't well known in the East, but he has generated much enthusiasm in California, and in Las Vegas, where a stampede of support has made him the favorite in future-book betting on the Kentucky Derby.

Afternoon Deelites launched his career too late to be ready for the Breeders' Cup, but he has won all four of his starts, most notably a 6 1/2-length runaway in the $500,000 Hollywood Futurity in December. What made the performance so extraordinary was the time of 1:34 2/5 for one mile; in my system of speed figures, this translated into a blockbuster 111. To put this number into perspective, the best figure Holy Bull earned in his brilliant 2-year-old season was 103.

Afternoon Deelites has impressed the most discriminating observers in California. Jeff Siegel, editor of the newsletter Handicapper's Report, said: "He's a tremendous horse. The only thing that can stop him is distance. He's like Seattle Slew: When he came around, you had to wonder if he was so fast that he was going to do himself in. It just remains to be seen whether he's a tremendous mile-and-a-quarter horse." Siegel thinks he will be, for Afternoon Deelites's raw speed seems controllable: "He's fast, but he's sensible."

If Afternoon Deelites lives up to his potential, he is the marquee attraction the sport needs to replace retired Holy Bull. And Afternoon Deelites is a publicist's dream. He is owned by songwriter Burt Bacharach, trained by sharp Richard Mandella and ridden by Kent Desormeaux, the most exciting member of his profession.

Most of the other promising Kentucky Derby candidates are concentrated on the West Coast. Undefeated French Deputy launched his career by running six furlongs in 1:08 4/5, and when he won his first distance race by 11 lengths last month, track announcer Trevor Denman exclaimed: "French Deputy is looking too good to be true!" Questions remain about his stamina, but he should benefit from the training of Neil Drysdale, one of the best.

Petionville is another well-regarded Californian, undefeated in three starts. And then there is Timber Country, who was scheduled to make his first start since the Breeders' Cup in Saturday's San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. Timber Country has looked good in morning trials, and Wayne Lukas is virtually the only trainer on the West Coast who professes no fear of Afternoon Deelites. While the trainers of most other good 3-year-olds are looking for ways to duck the Bacharach colt, Timber Country is scheduled for an April 8 showdown with Afternoon Deelites in the Santa Anita Derby.

In contrast to the acclaim for the 3-year-olds in California, the Gulfstream Park season has produced few performances that have led fans to conclude, "That's my Derby horse!" The most important race of the meeting to date has been the Fountain of Youth Stakes, in which Thunder Gulch rallied to score a photo-finish decision over Suave Prospect. Both colts displayed a good finishing kick, but the time wasn't exceptional. The fact that Thunder Gulch had been trounced by Afternoon Deelites in the Hollywood Futurity indicated the top Eastern3-year-olds are inferior.

On Feb. 23, however, a lightly raced 3-year-old won an allowance race at Gulfstream in a manner suggesting he might be something special. Top Account is a beautifully bred colt whose 2-year-old season was cut short by shin problems. After winning his first start at Gulfstream this winter, he was entered in a race in which conditions were overwhelmingly against him. Top Account was facing a brilliantly fast rival, Ft. Stockton, and there were no other speed horses in the small field.

Ft. Stockton cruised to the lead, as expected, and seemed to be running easily in mid-stretch when Top Account blew past and drew off to win by four lengths, running six furlongs in 1:09 1/5. He earned a speed figure of 107--better than any member of his generation besides Afternoon Deelites.

"That race was stronger than we or anybody else expected," said trainer Neil Howard, who recognized he might have a Derby-caliber horse. Top Account has not yet raced beyond seven furlongs, and Howard conceded: "We're going to have to play catch-up." He did a superb training job under similar circumstances with Summer Squall, the Derby runner-up in 1990. Top Account has the pedigree and style to succeed at a classic distance, and at 50 to 1 he's my future-book play for the Kentucky Derby, even though Afternoon Deelites is looming in his path.

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