04/17/2011 10:14AM

Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Recap

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If you had a sense of déjà vu late Saturday afternoon, you weren’t alone. For the second straight week, a highly ranked, highly respected, and heavily bet 3-year-old flopped in what was to be his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. Last week it was Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial. On Saturday, it was The Factor in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

Off strong victories in his prior three starts in which he became the only Kentucky Derby candidate this year to record three straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, The Factor backed up after tracking a strong early pace to finish a soundly beaten seventh. Like Uncle Mo in the Wood, this was The Factor’s first attempt at as far as 1 1-8 miles, and like Uncle Mo, distance might have had something to do with The Factor’s failure.

Right after the Arkansas Derby, The Factor was said to have displaced his palate, which certainly could not have helped. But even in view of that, I think the trip The Factor wound up with also played a big role in his loss. Unlike the way he controlled an uncontested pace last time out in the Rebel Stakes – which was his first start around two turns, and in which he crushed the subsequent winner of the Arkansas Derby, Archarcharch – The Factor was denied the early lead Saturday. He actually wound up in a nice spot, sitting some three to four lengths off the fast early fractions (22.54 and 46.53). However, The Factor always seemed out of his element in that position, and never really looked like a winner, even when he made a mild bid for the lead on the far turn.

Maybe the displaced palate explains all of that. But, at least at this early stage of his career, The Factor looks to me like he’s a need-the-lead type going two turns. And those types rarely succeed in the Kentucky Derby.

As for Archarcharch, he ran a solid race to upset at 25-1. He did benefit from the fast pace, but in his defense, he will in all likelihood get a similar pace to run at in the Derby. Archarcharch also benefitted from the wire coming up when it did, because the fast-closing Nehro was getting to him late. Nehro’s effort proved his surprising, and narrowly beaten, second in the Louisiana Derby was not a fluke, that he is much improved, and I find him an intriguing prospect for Louisville.

Still, one has to ask how strong this Arkansas Derby could have been with Dance City finishing third, beaten less than two lengths for all the money. I don’t want to take anything away from Dance City’s game performance, because he was the one forcing the fast pace. After that trip, Dance City deserves credit for finishing seven lengths ahead of The Factor and J P’s Gusto, who carved out those quick early fractions. But Dance City came into the Arkansas Derby off two blue collar overnight wins, and was 29-1 in what was his stakes debut. Being lightly raced, Dance City had a right to improve. But even allowing him reasonable improvement, you have to wonder how good this race really was for him to get as close as he did after the trip he had.

Let’s turn to Saturday’s Blue Grass at Keeneland, the once-pivotal Kentucky Derby prep that was moved to a synthetic surface in 2007. After that surface change, the Blue Grass gradually evolved from a prime source of premier Derby starters to a race for a horse already comfortably in the Derby on earnings looking for a final tune up on a forgiving surface.

It doesn’t seem likely that this year’s Blue Grass will have much, if any, impact on the Derby. Santiva, the colt who this year was hoping to use the Blue Grass as a “tune up,” instead had a troubled trip and finished ninth in what had to be a setback to whatever Derby chances he had beforehand. What we wound up with was Brilliant Speed (a turf specialist), Twinspired, and King Congie (another turf specialist), finishing one-two-three, separated by a nose and a head.

Right here, it is important to note the dirt records of these three, since, after all, dirt is the surface on which the Kentucky Derby is run. Brilliant Speed has made two dirt starts, and was beaten 19 1-4 and 21 lengths. In his one dirt start, Twinspired was beaten almost 12 lengths. And in his two prior dirt starts, King Congie was beaten 20 1-2 and 11 lengths. The optimistic view would be these three are just better horses now than they were when they tried dirt. More likely, this Blue Grass outcome is just another of the many examples of how unrelated synthetic track racing is to dirt racing.

Finally, this is being posted before the Beyer Figure for the Arkansas Derby is in (I’ll take a stab and predict it will be somewhere between 93 and 95). But we do have the Beyers for the other final major preps for the 2011 Kentucky Derby (although a couple of lesser potential preps remain, most notably Saturday’s Lexington).  Allowing that the Beyer gang reserves the right to make last minute tweaks, here are those Beyers:

Louisiana Derby – 94

Spiral – 93

Sunland Derby – 89

Florida Derby – 93

Wood Memorial – 94

Santa Anita Derby – 95

Blue Grass – 89

Some could look at that list and see a wide open Kentucky Derby. Others could look at that list and see profound mediocrity. And still others could see both.

UPDATE - The preliminary winning Beyer for the Arkansas Derby is 98.

ADDITONAL UPDATE - The Beyer folks bumped the Blue Grass fig up to 93, and moved the Santa Anita Derby number up to 97.