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Millennium Wind all the way in Blue Grass

Congaree gives Baffert another ace in Wood

Balto Star wires field in Arkansas Derby

This year's 3-year-olds a speedy bunch

It was more of the same last weekend as the final round of major Kentucky Derby preps was completed. At three different racetracks, three different horses turned in exceptional races, performances that were, based on speed figures, nothing less than spectacular. And so it goes. From Point Given to Balto Star to Millennium Wind, Congaree, Monarchos and down through the list, there is little doubt that this is a special group of 3-year-olds, perhaps one of the best ever. It is deep and it is good.

Millennium Wind earned a Beyer speed figure of 114 in the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
How can you tell? The answer is speed figures, a reliable method of comparing horses who have never met on the racetrack. When Congaree, Balto Star and Millennium Wind all posted impressive figures in their respective victories last weekend, the speed figure gurus had seen enough. Based on just about anyone's numbers, there are several special horses in this class, a bunch of whom will be unlucky to lose the Kentucky Derby only because they were born during such an exceptional year.

"This is by far the best crop we have seen since we started doing our figures in 1982," said Jerry Brown, whose Thoro-Graph service makes performance figures for every major track in the country. "This is probably the best crop ever. Never has there been so many horse that have run so fast so early in their careers."

On the Thoro-Graph scale, the lower the number, the better the performance. A zero is the mark of excellence, the type of number that wins most Grade I stakes races, even for older horses. As recently as the 1980's, the Kentucky Derby winner normally ran in the neighborhood of a 5. From the list of this year's top Kentucky Derby contenders, four horses (Monarchos, Balto Star, Point Given and Millennium Wind) have all run lower than a 1. Not far behind are horses like Congaree , Songandaprayer and, even, Jamaican Rum, all of whom have already run numbers that would have won most runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

The Beyer figures, the popular feature in the Daily Racing Form, tell a similar story. Since 1992 when the Beyer numbers first appeared in the Form, the average winning figure for the Kentucky Derby has been 108.77 and only two Derby winners (Fusaichi Pegasus and Silver Charm) ran a 110 or better in a Derby prep. This year, Millennium Wind (114), Balto Star (112) and Point Given (110) have all reached the 110 plateau. Three-year-olds Crafty C T (111) and D'Wildcat (110), neither of whom will be racing in the Derby, are also members fo the exclusive 110 club.

And while Point Given will be a solid favorite in Kentucky, he will not be the fastest horse in the race. Millennium Wind's 114 Beyer figure in the Blue Grass at Keeneland is humongous, freakishly good for a 3-year-old so early in his career. Critics will argue that his Beyer number is way out of line with anything else he had ever done in previous races and that he earned it racing over a speed-biased track.

Is the number legitimate?

"That's the $64,000 question," Beyer said. "If he did what he did and got a more reasonable figure that would put him in the mix, like a 106, then you'd say forget it. But it really was a big number; there's no doubt about it. It wasn't a questionable figure like you get from some of the races at Keeneland. There is his margin of victory and the gap back to some of the other horses in the field, horses who were pretty consistent. Those were horses with good form coming in and he buried them."

On speed figures alone, Point Given probably doesn't deserve to be the Kentucky Derby favorite: He owns only the third best Beyer figure among the leading Derby contenders. But both Beyer and Brown conclude that this is a serious race horse who will be hard to beat on the first Saturday in May. "Point Given has earned his figures more honestly than the others," Beyer said. "Millennium Wind was the beneficiary of a track bias and Balto Star has been getting loose on the lead, which doesn't figure to happen in the Kentucky Derby. Point Given may be a little behind them on numbers, but when you incorporate basic handicapping, you can certainly bring him to their level, at the very least."

Says Brown: "This horse is not overhyped. He's the one who looks like he hasn't run his best a race yet. He is a late-developer, he has the pedigree, weighs 1,200 pounds and is trained by a guy in Bob Baffert who has managed his horse very well. If he gets by the first one, he's got a big chance of winning the Triple Crown because the others figure to be a lot more tired coming back in two weeks in the Preakness than he will be."

The wild card may be Monarchos, who ran a big number when winning the Florida Derby, one that suggested he, too, is something special. However, he regressed when finishing second behind Congaree in the Wood Memorial. Trainer John Ward Jr. says that happened because he went easy on his horse leading up to the Wood. The naysayers believe he peaked too soon and left his best race on the track at Gulfstream Park. We shall see.

In the meantime, everything is in place for an outstanding rendition of the Kentucky Derby. Who will win? Somebody very fast.