01/23/2011 3:09PM

Soldat? Skeptical

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After last week's Eclipse Awards dinner put the 2010 racing year to bed with some finality, everyone now seems eager to move on to the Kentucky Derby, me included. But you will have to excuse me if shifting focus to the Derby does not also mean that I have to fall in love with the first 3-year-old or two I see.

I doubt most folks would have a problem withholding their love from the pair who dominated Saturday's LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds - Wilkinson and Pants On Fire. The LeComte might be the first leg of the thoroughly viable 3-year-old program at Fair Grounds that continues with the Risen Star and concludes with the Louisiana Derby. But the field that contested this edition of the LeComte was not strong. This field previously made a combined total of 19 starts. Only one came in a stakes, and that was an unsuccessful outing in a non-graded event. And even though Wilkinson and Pants On Fire's entertaining stretch battle enabled them to spread-eagle the three opponents who struggled behind them, their efforts were good for a preliminary Beyer Figure of only 77. A number like that is just not going to get you anywhere close to the discussion of leading Kentucky Derby contenders.

Soldat, who made his 3-year-old debut Friday in a nine-furlong allowance race on dirt at Gulfstream Park, presents a more complex problem, however. Last year, Soldat was a Grade 3 stakes winner on grass and was a sharp second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but was a soundly beaten second in both of his starts on dirt. Surface was no issue on Friday, though. Soldat won off by almost 11 lengths as the favorite, earning an eye catching Beyer of 102, and a shot against much stronger company late next month in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

One other thing Soldat seemed to earn Friday was an instant fan club. This is not without merit. Soldat is in excellent hands - he's trained by Kiaran McLaughlin - he has a solid racing foundation acquired in five starts last year at 2, and he has clearly shown that he can run fast.

And yet, I'm still skeptical.

One issue I have with Soldat is I question the strength of the field he crushed Friday. Runner up and second choice in the betting, Cool Blue Red Hot, earned a 96 Beyer when nosed in his debut last fall at Belmont. But no one out of that race has suggested in subsequent performances that that high figure is anywhere close to valid. Cool Blue Red Hot himself got a Beyer of only 72 when he came back with his maiden win at Calder. And third finisher Beamer, the third choice in the betting who gained more than six lengths on Cool Blue Red Hot in the final furlong while finishing well ahead of the rest, lost for a tag in his first start, and came into Friday's race off a 77 Beyer earned in a maiden win at Tampa.

But the biggest problem I have with Soldat is his big figure, front-running win Friday came on a sloppy, sealed track. Handicappers know like they know their names to question the validity of of big (or poor, for that matter) performances in the slop. It's Level One stuff. But when you combine that with how inferior opposition often makes superior horses look better than they really are, you can see how Soldat's performance Friday could have been artificially enhanced by surface and field quality.

Maybe Soldat has more to him than just the glitter he showed Friday. For his sake, he'd better. This is an interesting 3-year-old crop this year with genuine quality, even if it now appeared to be mainly concentrated at the top. A horse like Soldat needs to have real substance to go along with his flash to make a meaningful dent in this division.