04/14/2008 12:00AM

Blue Grass form yields few answers


NEW YORK - Be wary of any individual who would have you believe they know exactly what to make of last Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes and what impact it will have on the Kentucky Derby. It's like taking advice from the sidewalk vendor in Manhattan who, thanks to factory overstocks, would sell you a Rolex for $30.

The only thing we know for sure is this: Thanks to the graded earnings for finishing first and second in the Blue Grass, Monba and Cowboy Cal secured starting berths in the Derby.

Any conclusion beyond that is only guessing. And that is because the Blue Grass was run on a Polytrack at Keeneland that probably colored the outcome and which is totally unlike the dirt surface at Churchill Downs where the Derby will be run on.

Yes, the previous week's Santa Anita Derby was also run on a synthetic surface. But the Santa Anita Derby was a formful affair won in visually impressive fashion by a colt, Colonel John, who has been highly regarded and consistent.

The same cannot be said for the Blue Grass. This Blue Grass had the kind of variance in performance that always brings a race's form into question. You can believe the Blue Grass marked Monba's emergence as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender while exposing Pyro to be a bit of a fraud. Or, you can believe the same footing that threw Pyro so far off his game - he finished 10th without ever making a move, beaten 11 1/2 lengths, as the even-money favorite off his two visually impressive wins this year at Fair Grounds - made Monba look better than he really is.

Or, you can believe the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle, which is what I think, although it's only an educated guess. From a positive perspective, Monba did well to get up over Cowboy Cal, who to this point is the best turf male of his generation. This was Monba's first really representative outing since last December. He certainly couldn't have gotten much out his one start in the interim, a distant 12th in the Fountain of Youth. On the other hand, Monba's victory earned a Beyer Speed Figure of only 92, which as modest as it is, is a career top. And you have to wonder how well the first two finishers ran if Kentucky Bear, in his third career start after finishing a distant seventh in the Fountain of Youth, wound up only a little more than a length behind them in third.

As for Pyro, even his harshest skeptics would have to concede that his effort Saturday was too dull to be taken at face value. But Pyro's non-performance in the Blue Grass opens the door for closer inspection of his wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, neither of which were very fast.

And once you get past Monba and Pyro, there also is the matter of how to assess Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man, who backed up after being well positioned early to finish just under a length ahead of Pyro, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, who finished a neck behind Pyro. Good luck with that.

Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park was much more straightforward. Gayego and Z Fortune, who went into the Arkansas Derby as solid second-tier Kentucky Derby aspirants, both ran well finishing first and second. They might not have done enough to strike fear into the likes of Big Brown and Colonel John, but in a race that earned a winning Beyer of 103, they did well enough to improve their status regarding the rest of the potential Kentucky Derby field.

A strong point was made on the national telecast of the Arkansas Derby concerning the wide trip by Z Fortune. Indeed, after breaking from post 11, Z Fortune raced about four wide the entire way, losing more ground than Gayego's three-quarters of a length margin of victory. But just as strong a case can be made that Gayego had at least as tough a trip. In his first start on dirt after racing on synthetic surfaces in California, Gayego pressed fast fractions yet still found enough to turn back Z Fortune.

In other races, it's unlikely Saturday's Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland, won by Rebellion, will have a significant impact on the sprint division. But Keeneland did conduct two turf stakes, Friday's Maker's Mark Mile and Saturday's Jenny Wiley Stakes, that were of divisional importance. Kip Deville capitalized on a perfect trip when he upset the Breeders' Cup Mile last fall, and he got another sweet trip in the Maker's Mark, his first start since. Kip Deville saved ground all the way and never had to get off the temporary rail to get a clear run. That said, he has a license to move forward off the Maker's Mark and is indisputably the nation's top turf miler until proven otherwise.

There was a lot to take out of the Jenny Wiley, a race where a neck and two heads separated the first four finishers. But the most notable impressions involved Rutherienne, the winner; Lady of Venice, who finished third; and Precious Kitten, a perennial division leader who finished fifth as the favorite. Rutherienne was able to replicate her strong 3-year-old form of last year in her first start against older opponents. Lady of Venice, who is virtually even with Precious Kitten in terms of ability, was floated very wide into the stretch, and will improve off this race. And so will Precious Kitten, who was caught very wide early.