04/13/2008 12:18PM

Poly Prep


The Blue Grass Stakes Saturday was the 13th time an American Grade 1 race has been run on Polytrack -- and the 13th time the favorite has lost. What's more, even-money Pyro became the 7th of those 13 favorites to finish fifth or worse:

Thirteen races is a statistically iffy sample, but the results certainly mirror most horseplayers' confusion about these races: What, if anything, do we learn about these horses when they prep for major events on Polytrack? Last year's Blue Grass, a four-way photo-finish among horses who returned to run 11-1-12-17 in the Derby, was entirely misleading: Those who remained loyal to Street Sense did so in spite of rather than because of his performance, while those attracted to Dominican, Zanjero or Teufelsberg had been given the false impression that those horses were within necks and noses of the Derby winner in ability.

Monba was one of my six in my anti-Pyro Premier Pick Four play, so I'm not speaking from the perch of a "disgruntled horseplayer," which is how those of us with concerns about the validity of racing on this surface are usually marginalized by its defenders. (I also know I got lucky because I didn't use Cowboy Cal, who just as easily could have won.) Nor do I lump all synthetic surfaces together; the Cushion Tracks at Hollywood and Santa Anita have taken some getting used to, but don't seem to play utter havoc with dirt form the way that Polytrack does.

There was no satisfaction in seeing Pyro run a dismal 10th. I thought he was being overrated and underpriced off two slow-figure victories, but he might as well have lost his rider coming out of the gate. At least if you liked him before, you'll get a better price on him on Derby Day now. Nor was he the only accomplished dirt horse to spin his wheels in the Blue Grass: The winners of the Fountain of Youth, Louisiana Derby and Tampa Bay Derby finished in a three way photo -- for 9th, 10th and 11th.

And who knows what to do with Monba? I've liked him since his strong finish in the Hollywood Futurity, but it's very hard to gauge the quality of his race Saturday. The race, run in 1:49.71, got a Beyer Speed Figure of 92. That may seem low, but it fits perfectly with the day's other Polytrack route, a similarly-paced N1x for 3-year-olds timed in 1:43.80 for a mile and a sixteenth, only six Beyer points slower than the Blue Grass. And how much faster can you rate the Blue Grass when 68-1 Stevil is beaten just 2 1/2 lengths despite, according to the chart, going "ten or twelve wide" around the stretch turn?

The Arkansas Derby came up a stronger race, getting a preliminary Beyer of 103 though there's some question about whether the track speeded up a bit toward the end of the card. It was a highly formful race, with the two fastest and most accomplished entrants running 1-2 and leaving the rest behind. Gayego ran a strong, pace-pressing race and will join what's starting to look like a crowded potential first flight of Derby runners including Big Brown, War Pass and Bob Black Jack. Z Fortune chased pretty well while losing ground on both turns, though the memory of the real Pyro blowing past him in the Risen Star lingers strongly.

I was trying to root Z Fortune home given the likelihood that that the Premier Pick Four would have paid more than $1083.60 for $1 with a 6-1 rather than a 2-1 in the last leg, but you're a lot more resourceful than I am if you ever found or saw probable payoffs for this so-called national bet. Despite having 75 minutes to fill between races, the 90-minute ESPN telecast never mentioned the wager or displayed the will-pays or payoffs. The pool was $371,724, more than the final round of Derby Futures and Oaks Futures wagering combined.