04/07/2008 6:11PM

Colonel John 6-1, Tale of Ekati 18-1?


Were Saturday's two Grade 1 Derby preps of such wildly different quality that Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John deserved to close at 6-1 in the Derby Futures pool while Wood Memorial 1-2 finishers Tale of Ekati and War Pass closed at 18-1 and 14-1 respectively?

It's understandable that many people's first intuitive take was that Colonel John looked more like a Derby winner, rallying past eight horses to win from off the pace, while Tale of Ekati and War Pass came home slowly while looking exhausted. Still, if this were the fifth race on Thursday instead of the Derby, a lot of handicappers would consider the efforts of the first two in the Wood stronger than Colonel John's.

The two races received similarly weak final-time speed figures that were entirely straightforward on tracks that played consistently throughout the day. Colonel John's 1:48.10 translated to a Beyer speed figure of 95, the lowest in the race in 15 years. Tale of Ekati's 1:52.35 on a much slower (37 Beyer points slower) Aqueduct track earned a 93, the lowest Wood number since Beyer Figures were first published in 1991. At least the Wood, however, had an excuse for its ultimate slowness: the brutally fast early pace that unfolded because the rabbit Inner Light tried to run War Pass into the ground.

So while War Pass was being pushed to run a first quarter in 22.46 and a half in 46.07, Colonel John was loping along in 24.10 and 48.27 while 4 to 4 1/2 lengths off the lead -- over a track that was three seconds faster at a mile and an eighth. Then things flipped entirely late, with Colonel John running his last three-eighths in 35.48 on the quick Cushion Track while War Pass was laboring home in 40.94 over the loswer Aqueduct strip. And while Tale of Ekati was in a good spot early, six lengths behind that vicious opening quarter, he was within three lengths of the strong fractions thereafter and nearly as tired as War Pass, coming home in 40.42.

If the three were to meet again in four weeks going a mile and an eighth, Colonel John might well be the third choice. Handicappers would believe that earning 93's after setting or chasing unusually strong fractions is a little better than earning a 95 after a relaxed early trip. The extra furlong of the Derby, and the possibility of another strong pace, will make Colonel John a shorter price in Louisville. There's a case to be made, however, that Tale of Ekati and War Pass have room to run much better final figures under a different pace scenario, but where's Colonel John's upside?

Not many people would have predicted the Illinois Derby would come up with the fastest figure of Saturday's three Derby preps, especially with favored Denis of Cork off the board, but Recapture the Glory's front-running romp in 1:49.01 got a 102 Beyer over a track whose speed was about halfway between Santa Anita's and Aqueduct's. Of course it helped that he was entirely unmolested while walking through opening fractions of 24.17 and 48.64. Think War Pass might have won if permitted to set that kind of pace?

As for the Derby Futures, the Pool Three handle was a dismal $291,835 despite the two big Saturday races and no conflict with the Easter holiday as in other years. This is lower than the exacta pool for the first race at Aqueduct Saturday, a six-horse statebred allowance race. Will Churchill Downs continue to insist that all is well with the bet, or finally consider opening up the pool to over 400 individual betting interests?