Diamonds in the rough

A year ago, few people had even heard of I'll Have Another. He had won his debut and finished second in the Best Pal Stakes, but then he did a bellyflop in the Hopeful, finishing sixth, 19 lengths behind Currency Swap. And so with Union Rags, Creative Cause and Hansen out there, sparkling in the public eye, I'll Have Another was easy to overlook. A year ago, Paynter had yet to race, and Bodemeister, despite his 21 workouts, still wasn't ready for prime time.

And yet they became, along with Union Rags, the season's top 3-year-olds. But that has become the norm for 3-year-olds, many of the division's leaders emerging from the ranks of the unheralded and the unknown. Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, Big Brown and Drosselmeyer all won at 2, but did little else, their maiden victories encapsulating their juvenile accomplishments. Bernardini and Summer Bird didn't even race at 2, didn't race, in fact until March of their 3-year-old seasons. But they all won a Triple Crown race -- or, in Big Brown's case, two Triple Crown races. Animal Kingdom, Big Brown, Bernardini and Summer Bird all became champion.

But what about the outliers? What about all the talent that's lurking?

The new point system that will determine the field for the Kentucky Derby places less emphasis on the traditionally preeminent races for 2-year-olds, and so it would seem possible, perhaps likely, that even more horses in the future will advance from juvenile obscurity to 3-year-old prominence.

Everybody, of course, knows about the prominent soon-to-be-3-year-olds: Shanghai Bobby, the unbeaten Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner who'll make a run at the Triple Crown from Florida, and Power Broker, who had a nightmarish trip at Santa Anita but is aimed at restitution. After last weekend, most observers also know about Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion and Delhomme, the first three finishers in a very fast Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, as well as Uncaptured, Frac Daddy and Dewey Square, who led the way in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill.

But what about the outliers? What about all the talent that's lurking? The question jumps up, shoots flares into the sky and screams for attention: Who among the unknown and unheralded will emerge over the next few months to join the prominent 3-year-olds in a rush to smell the roses? Well, there are literally hundreds of candidates. But at the top of the list is Little Distorted.

In his debut at Belmont Park on Oct. 28, Little Distorted popped out of the gate but was challenged immediately. After an opening half-mile in 45.66 seconds, he put away one rival, but then had to take on Revolutionary, the odds-on favorite, who, in what has become his unfortunate "style," was rallying after an awkward start. Revolutionary advanced strongly, rolled up to Little Distorted and looked as if he'd roll right by. But Little Distorted called and raised, running the final quarter-mile in 24.06 while just cruising through the final yards, stopping the teletimer at 1:09.72.

After Little Distorted's sensational debut, the phone never stopped ringing, said the colt's trainer, Mike Mareina. Everybody with a mile-high bankroll and a vivid imagination, it seemed, was interested in buying the son of Distorted Humor who's out of the A. P. Indy mare Asbeautifulasyou.

Mareina (who sold Game On Dude early in the horse's career) said he lost three weeks of training with Little Distorted because of the potential buyers, who, quite naturally, wanted the colt wrapped in cellophane until a transaction could be completed. And indeed Little Distorted has been sold, Mareina said, to Silverton Hill Farms. Darrin Miller will soon be the colt's new trainer.

"When he ran, truthfully, I was afraid he was a work or two away," Mareina said about Little Distorted and the horse's debut victory. "But he's a very good horse, and I don't think distance will be any problem for him."

Even though Little Distorted will move to another barn, Mareina said he has good bullpen. Little Distorted's workmate, Eastwood, has yet to make his debut.

Titletown Five, who scored his maiden victory by nine lengths in October at Churchill Downs, would be included here, perhaps at the top of the list, if not for an injury. He chipped a knee and will be out 60-90 days. But his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said he's excited about another young prospect in the barn: Oxbow, a recent maiden winner at Churchill who'll make his next start Dec. 15 at Hollywood Park in the CashCall Futurity. Oxbow, by the way, is a son of Awesome Again, the sire of Paynter. And Oxbow's dam is Tizamazing, a full-sister to, Tizso, the dam of Paynter. That makes Oxbow a three-quarter brother to Paynter. Or would that be a five-sixths brother? The fractions won't matter, of course, if he runs like Paynter.

Stay In Dixie, who after two starts on a synthetic surface won his dirt debut by nearly 15 lengths at Remington Park, could also be on this list. "He sure has some quality," said his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel, "and I think he has a chance to be a nice 3-year-old." But Stay In Dixie, Von Hemel said, will get a restful vactation, resuming training later this winter, or maybe early spring, at Oaklawn Park. And Archwarrior could be included, but, of course, he ran fourth in the Champagne, which means he's hardly unknown, and he was probably the most heralded youngster of the Saratoga season. Many promising youngsters, in fact, could be on this list, but, for the moment anyway, based on talent, promise and intrigue, here are the leaders among the unknown, the unheralded and the inconspicuous:

1. Little Distorted: His debut was so impressive that he's hardly unknown. But since he has yet to run in a stakes, he must be included here. He's in Florida preparing for his return to competition.

2. Palace Malice: The son of Curlin ran second in his debut and then won at Saratoga in August. A strong and graceful mover, he was aimed at the Hopeful Stakes when sore shins put him on the sidelines. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said Palace Malice should soon be ready to breeze.

3. Long River: The son of A. P. Indy and Round Pond showed little in his debut, but then ran second to Delhomme at a mile. A handsome colt, Long River looks like he can get only better with maturity and distance.

4. Malibu High: It's unusual to base much of anything on a race at 4 1/2 furlongs, but Malibu High's debut was, quite simply, sensational. He got left, rallied wide and made up 12 lengths in the final quarter-mile. That was in June, and he hasn't raced since then, but he recently had a bullet workout at Churchill.

5. War Academy: The son of Giant's Causeway recently won his debut at Hollywood Park as the even-money favorite. His trainer, Bob Baffert, said the colt's a good one, which is probably all you need to know. The Baffert stable, of course, is loaded with prospects, including Super Ninety Nine, Shakin It Up and Carving, who could all run in the CashCall Futurity.

6. Always In A Tiz: A $175,000 yearling purchase, he won his debut at Saratoga in September, stalking through 44.68, racing three-wide and finishing with determination to beat three others that could be on this list: Clawback, Revolutionary and Favor Factor.

7. Good Tickled: If there had been any more trouble in the Bashford Manor Stakes, the police should have been called. Good Tickled broke poorly, rushed into traffic, checked, was forced wide and sort of cruised home. But he showed his talent when he won on June 30 at Churchill. He'll return Saturday at Tampa Bay, where two others that could be included here, Purple Egg and Brave Dave, meet in the Inaugural Stakes.

8. Whiskey Romeo: Unbeaten in two races, he won a minor stakes this month at Laurel by more than seven lengths, with little encouragement, and then galloped out strongly. The son of Forestry is trained by Tony Dutrow.

9. Avie's Quality: The son of Elusive Quality recently won at Woodbine, rallying impressively on the outside and drawing clear by five lengths, and then he galloped out in way that suggested he was eager for more. He could be at Fair Grounds in New Orleans with trainer Josie Carroll.

10. Get Happy Mister: Ok, he has been competing at Arapahoe Park, but that's what makes him so intriguing. He's a ball-peen runner. (Real Quiet once ran in the Indian Nations Futurity, don't forget, in Sante Fe.) Unbeaten in four outings, all at Arapahoe, Get Happy Mister has won his races by almost 32 total lengths. When the son of First Samurai won the Gold Rush Futurity, he ran the six furlongs in 1:08.63, beating an interloper from Del Mar by nine lengths.