04/29/2009 11:00PM

Based on dirt form, the choice is obvious

Barbara D. Livingston
I Want Revenge is the only member of this year's Kentucky Derby field with a Grade 1 victory on dirt.

WASHINGTON - If synthetic tracks did not confuse the issue, an analysis of the Kentucky Derby could be reduced to a simple bit of deductive reasoning.

Pioneerof the Nile has won four straight stakes races in California. He has defeated such rivals as I Want Revenge (twice) and Papa Clem.

I Want Revenge subsequently went to Aqueduct and won two stakes impressively. Papa Clem shipped to Oaklawn Park and captured the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

In the past, the logical conclusion would have been obvious. The best 3-year-olds are in California, Pioneerof the Nile is the best of the bunch, and he figures to win the 135th Derby on Saturday.

However, such reasoning is not applicable since the Southern California tracks replaced their traditional dirt ovals with synthetic surfaces. Few horses display the same ability on dirt and synthetics, and it is difficult to predict a horse's preferences until he has tried both.

The California-based I Want Revenge had displayed very respectable form on synthetic surfaces, though he had managed to win only a maiden race in six starts. But when trainer Jeff Mullins shipped him to Aqueduct in order to try him on dirt, he was a different horse. I Want Revenge earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113 in the Gotham Stakes, a number that was 21 points higher than his best effort in the West and was good enough to win any of the last six Kentucky Derbies.

However, the fact that I Want Revenge made this successful transition has absolutely no relevance to the chances of the other synthetic-track specialists in the Derby field. Perhaps one of them will improve on dirt, too, but the probabilities are against them. Last year, four horses came into the Derby with solid credentials on synthetics and no proven dirt form; they finished sixth, ninth, 16th, and 19th. I will bet against all of the synthetic specialists in Saturday's race - Chocolate Candy, Advice, Hold Me Back, Mr. Hot Stuff, and particularly Pioneerof the Nile.

As a 2-year-old, Pioneerof the Nile was trained by the astute Bill Mott, who launched the colt's career by running him on the grass at Saratoga and never tried him on dirt. It is plausible to assume that Mott didn't think he was a good dirt runner. Under the care of Bob Baffert this year, Pioneerof the Nile has blossomed at Santa Anita, which favors horses with his stretch-running style, but he may be strictly a synthetic-track horse.

Synthetic tracks have only injected handicapping riddles into the Derby. They have changed the complexion of the field and the dynamics of the race. The Derby has usually been filled with speed horses whose owners and trainers are praying they can somehow hang on for 1 1/4 miles. Many of these horses earned their way into the field after successes on speed-favoring tracks at Santa Anita and Keeneland. Their presence often created a destructive early pace that set up the Derby for a stretch-runner.

But since California and Keeneland have both converted to synthetics, fewer such speedsters enter the Derby. With a slower early pace, horses coming from far behind are compromised. That is an additional reason for bettors to avoid synthetic-track stretch-runners and to prefer horses who have shown speed on the dirt.

I Want Revenge is a standout in the Derby on the basis of his 2-for-2 dirt record. His losses in California are largely irrelevant. He has the necessary speed, which he displayed by dueling for the lead and winning the Gotham Stakes. But he showed other dimensions to his talent when he broke several lengths behind the field in the Wood Memorial, encountered traffic trouble in the stretch, and still managed to win. He possesses the versatility and stamina that are important assets at Churchill Downs.

After the formidable Quality Road was knocked out of the Derby by a hoof problem, there appear to be only two challengers with a plausible chance to beat the favorite: Friesan Fire and Dunkirk. Friesan Fire won three straight stakes in Louisiana, and he showed his readiness for the Derby with a sizzling five-furlong workout this week. One possible knock against him is that he earned his only excellent speed figure on a sloppy track. Dunkirk definitely has the talent, based on his second-place finish behind Quality Road in the Florida Derby. He owns the second-best speed figure in the field. However, the $3.7 million yearling has raced three times and never started as a 2-year-old. He is bucking a formidable precedent: No horse unraced at 2 has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882.

Since these two rivals are anything but iron-clad propositions, bettors playing trifectas and superfectas can take a chance with longshots who have respectable dirt form. Papa Clem ran decently to win the Arkansas Derby. Desert Party and Regal Ransom both have enough speed and seasoning to fare better than the other shippers from Dubai who have flopped at Churchill Downs. But this much about the Derby seems clear (at least to me): I Want Revenge will win it, and none of the synthetic- track specialists will finish close to him.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post