05/09/2009 7:47PM

Keyest Key Race Ever?


Key When Mythical Power won the G3 Lone Star Derby today, he became the fourth horse who was beaten in the Sunland Derby to win a stakes race in his next start -- the most famous, of course, being Mine That Bird, who came off a fourth-place finish that day to win the Kentucky Derby at 50-1. 

In addition to Mine That Bird and Mythical Power, fifth-place Sunland Derby finisher Advice returned to win the G3 Lexington, and last-place finisher Valid Stripes won the Texas Stallion Stakes earlier today at Lone Star.

Does that make the 2009 Sunland Derby one of the greatest key races of all time, and mean that Kelly Leak, who hasn't run since winning it, might secretly be the best 3-year-old in America?

Not necessarily. Mine That Bird and Advice clearly didn't run up to their capabilities at Sunland and showed vast improvement in their next starts. Mythical Power ($4.20) and Valid Stripes ($4.00) were heavily favored in easier spots today. Another result today, in the G2 Peter Pan at Belmont (more on that race below), cast further doubt. Scorewithcater -- who finished a neck in front of Mine That Bird in both the Borderland and Sunland Derbies -- finished 5th, beaten 13 1/4 lengths, at a vastly underlaid 6-1.

The "key race" concept, first popularized by Steve Davidowitz in his seminal book "Betting Thoroughbreds," is a valuable one, and obviously the Sunland Derby had some horses of quality in it. But it's a concept that is too often applied uncritically by handicappers who believe that any race that produces two next-out winners is automatically an underrated event that must have been better than it first looked.  Given that every winner had to make his previous start somewhere, every race should produce on average one next-out winner, so there will be plenty that produce two or three virtually at random. There also can be overlooked reasons for the apparent richness of a supposed key race: If two horses badly beaten in a maiden-special-weight race win their next starts in maiden-claiming company, does that necessarily mean the maiden-special race was all that strong?

None of this is meant to denigrate Mine That Bird or the Sunland Derby, a race that fully deserves  graded status next year. But taking 6-1 on a legitimately 15-1 Scorewithcater, because he finished in front of horses who didn't fire that day, is taking an otherwise worthy concept one step too far.

--Charitable Man enjoyed a perfect trip winning the Peter Pan but it was a promising performance that suggested he has fully recovered from his injury and could be ready to join the top ranks of the 3-year-old class.

Charitable Man was a sensational first-out winner at Saratoga, scoring by 11 1/2 lengths, and then won the Belmont Futurity, beating Flying Pegasus and Friesan Fire, in his second start. A knee injury sidelined him for seven months until he returned in the Blue Grass, an impossible spot, in a desperate attempt to compile enough earnings to make the Derby. It probably worked out best for him in the long run that he floundered over Polytrack and ran 7th, sending him to the Peter Pan instead of Louisville.

He sat second early in the Peter Pan as an overeager Hello Broadway set nutty fractions of 44.89 and 1:08.93 opening an eight-length lead down the backstretch. Charitable Man inhaled the tiring leader in upper stretch, opened a two-length lead over Imperial Council after a mile in 1:34.36, and extended his margin to 3 3/4 lengths at the finish, with nine furlongs around one turn in 1:47.13. Next stop Belmont Stakes, a race his sire, Lemon Drop Kid, won in 1999 after finishing third in the Peter Pan -- which in those ancient times was run two rather than four weeks before the Belmont.

The time compares well to the three other dirt routes on the card -- all off-the-turfers at 8.5f, which were run in 1:41.48, 1:42.95 and 1:43.51 -- and earned a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 98.

--There's a neat new feature that debuted yesterday in DRF's Formulator: Changing live odds now pop directly into your past performances while you're looking at them online. They appear where the morning line used to be, with the original ML prices appearing just above them in smaller type.

--The Lone Star Derby and Peter Pan were two of only three graded stakes races around the country today. The other was the G2 Mervyn LeRoy, where 16-1 Ball Four led all the way under Joe Talamo to score by a length and a quarter over 3-5 Rail Trip in 1:41.58 for 8.5f.