April 22, 2008

Kentucky Derby 134: Tracking the surface debate is a waste of time

The hottest topic in horse racing this spring, and sure to be the red-hot yap leading up to the Kentucky Derby, is dirt tracks versus synthetic tracks — and the supposed wild difference in “form” of horses running on the two surfaces. Of the six traditional Kentucky Derby prep races, three have been run on dirt, and three on synthetic tracks.In fact, the two probable betting favorites in the Kentucky Derby, Big Brown and Colonel John, have campaigned exclusively on the opposite track surfaces (as have most of the other contenders), and some handicappers have complained that that makes predicting what they’ll do in the Derby virtually impossible. And maybe it does.But so what? The Kentucky Derby has always been the world’s most challenging race to pick, with horses coming from everywhere and every possible set of conditions. For half a century they’ve been talking about horses arriving at Churchill Downs from deeper tracks in the East facing those who have blistered the faster tracks in the West. Swaps vs. Nashua. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Nothing new.All this track-surface carping brings to mind a line from the late Mike Barry. When losing jocks would say their horse “didn’t like the track,” Mike would always say, “What they didn’t like was the other horses on it!”So the advice here is to forget the Polytrack debate and get on to the horses, beginning with the probable top two betting choices this year: Big Brown and Colonel John.In just his third lifetime start, unbeaten Big Brown went to the top and simply flew away in the Florida Derby — with two-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Kent Desormeaux marveling,  “Did you ever watch a deer bounding through a meadow? Just bouncing through the flowers? That’s what he feels like.”A couple thousand miles away, Colonel John seemed hopelessly lost in the pack on the turn for home in the Santa Anita Derby — then roared down the lane to win, and was a strong handful for jockey Corey Nakatani to pull up after the wire. All of Colonel John’s races have been on synthetic tracks. But not to worry, said ESPN racing analyst and three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens: “He’s such a long-striding horse, I think he’ll be even better when he gets to the dirt at Churchill Downs.”After those two comes a group of horses who haven’t yet registered 9.9 on the Derby Fever Scale, but present solid credentials nonetheless. Monba, a gray son of Maria’s Mon, who sired 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, captured the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Owned by a partnership headed by Louisville native Jack Wolf, Monba has been training in the tranquility of Keeneland, and seems to be chomping hay and sniffing Kentucky spring air like a colt ready to run big again.Adriano, who also has been breathing the springtime air at Keeneland, won the Lane’s End at Turfway Park in easy fashion. He’s by A.P. Indy and has worked well over the dirt at Churchill Downs. Beware.Tale of Ekati got up in the final strides to beat War Pass in the Wood Memorial in New York. But he hails from the Derby-distance challenged Storm Cat sire line. So don’t get too excited.Gayego, a son of sprinter Gilded Time, is another for whom the 1-1/4 miles might seem daunting. But he won the 1-1/8 miles Arkansas Derby with what sharp racing writer Dick Jerardi termed a double move. “First,” said Jerardi, “he stalked a solid pace and moved by the pacesetter in the stretch. Then, when challenged in the stretch by Z Fortune, Gayego dug in and rebroke near the wire.”Court Vision, who is by Gulch, who sired Derby winner Thunder Gulch, has been trained to close. He’s been a late-running third in his last two starts, and is a must for all “exotic” bets.Longshots also have their Derby Days, and Gato Del Sol ($44.40), Charismatic ($64.60) and Giacomo ($102.60) are perfect proof. The best was Donerail, at $184.90 in 1913.Trainer Louie Roussel has one of those “outsiders” in Illinois Derby winner Recapturetheglory.“The role of an outsider here is to hope that he can get away clean from the gate, get good position, and have enough left down the stretch to make a wonderful showing for the day,” said Roussel, whose Risen Star finished third in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, then won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. “It doesn’t matter what prep races you win coming to Churchill Downs, it matters that your horse gets better every day here, gallops stronger, eats better — and he’s ready to peak on Derby Day.”So we’ll keep an eye on the hopefuls making their final workouts over the hallowed dirt at the Ancient Downs. Then make a pick next week. Right here in this space.Two in a row, by the way, looking for three straight. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com