03/29/2009 11:00PM

Bubble time for Dunkirk

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We all had to be impressed by the performances of Quality Road and Dunkirk in the $750,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.

Both colts looked the part of serious Kentucky Derby horses for different reasons: Quality Road, because he demonstrated excellent two-turn form that confirmed his high-powered victory in the one-turn Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 28; Dunkirk, for his sweeping, very wide move on the final turn en route to a good second-place finish in his first stakes, against a serious, slightly more seasoned rival.

By repelling Dunkirk's bid and holding him at bay through the length of the stretch, Quality Road enhanced his status as a possible favorite for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2. As satisfying as that may be to Quality Road's connections, the victory also put a potentially dangerous rival in a weak position to make the Derby starting field. Remember, should more than 20 be entered in the Kentucky Derby on Wednesday, April 29, only the top 20 in graded stakes earnings will make the cut. (That number could get trimmed by one should the connections of Kentucky Derby Challenge winner Mafaaz decide to run.)

Right now Dunkirk has $150,000 in graded stakes earnings, all from his second-place finish in the Florida Derby. That sum likely will put Dunkirk on the bubble while more than $4 million in graded stakes money will be contested in six Derby prep stakes during the next three weeks at Aqueduct, Santa Anita Park, Oaklawn Park, Hawthorne, and Keeneland.

Think about it: Should Quality Road go on to win the Kentucky Derby while Dunkirk is excluded from the race, we may look back on the Florida Derby as the day Quality Road actually won his blanket of roses. Make no mistake about Dunkirk, even though he was beaten fair and square last Saturday, this son of Unbridled's Song easily could improve a few lengths in his next outing at a longer distance. He has the breeding, the physical scope, and unless the compressed program he has been on since his debut two months ago leads to a regression, Dunkirk can be a serious rival for any 3-year-old in America.

Dunkirk's trainer, Todd Pletcher, realized the implications of his colt's defeat and was left to second-guess his own prep race game plan. In fact, Pletcher questioned after the race why he ran Dunkirk in the Florida Derby instead of shipping north for the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct this coming Saturday.

"They obviously sped the racetrack up today," Pletcher complained on ESPN. "It's been speed-favoring all day." Pletcher also voiced his displeasure directly to Bill Murphy, Gulfstream's president and general manager, and emphatically said that had he known the way the track was going to play, he would have scratched his stretch-running colt.

Because Pletcher rarely runs his horses with only two or three weeks' rest, it looks like he will point Dunkirk towards the Prekness on May 16 or the Belmont Stakes on June 6, the only Triple Crown race Pletcher has ever won.

In the meantime, there are more than 50 Derby hopefuls who could compete in the six remaining graded prep stakes, seeking earnings and performance credentials to prove they deserve tickets to Louisville.

First up on Saturday will be a trio of nine-furlong graded stakes - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Santa Anita Derby, and the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Park.

The Wood might or might not provide I Want Revenge with a legit opportunity to prove that his highly rated runaway victory in the Gotham on Aqueduct's inner track March 7 was no fluke. Unfortunately, the likely opposition appears several notches below the usual standard for this historically important Grade 1 race.

Aside from the Shug McGaughey-trained Imperial Council, who was a distant second in the Gotham, the prospective Wood field will include several unaccomplished Derby prospects who must step up big time to challenge I Want Revenge, even if he regresses four or five lengths from his 113 Gotham Stakes Beyer Speed Figure. With that backdrop, anything less than a clear-cut victory by I Want Revenge will be a disappointment to those who think he has the ability to challenge Quality Road at Churchill Downs.

In the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, there are at least three highly promising Derby prospects who will be trying to sort themselves out: The Pamplemousse, Pioneerof the Nile, and Chocolate Candy.

Since winning a maiden race at Hollywood Park in December, The Pamplemousse has gone wire to wire in the one-mile San Rafael and nine-furlong Sham Stakes on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride to be the logical one to catch in Santa Anita's premier race for 3-year-olds.

Pioneerof the Nile, a confirmed stretch-runner, also has won his last three on synthetic tracks, all 1 1/16-mile graded stakes - the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20, the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita on Feb. 7, and the San Felipe on March 14.

Chocolate Candy, third in the CashCall Futurity last fall, has been performing somewhat under the radar in Northern California this year, winning a pair of 1o1/16-mile stakes on the Golden Gate Fields synthetic Tapeta track, including the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby Feb. 14. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, this son of Candy Ride would jump into the Derby picture with a Santa Anita Derby victory, or by merely splitting the two Southern California heavyweights.

While The Pamplemousse, a strongly built son of Kafwain, has shown his customary early speed in recent workouts for trainer Julio Canani, his slow final quarter-mile splits in those works have left the impression that he might be vulnerable as the distances lengthen.

Pioneerof the Nile raised similar doubts when he struggled a bit to hold his stride together through the final furlong of his recent win in the San Felipe. But trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, has expressed optimism that we have not yet seen the best from this son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker.

Meanwhile, Chocolate Candy has been on a stamina-building training regimen at Golden Gate Fields that began with a five-furlong drill in 59.80 on March 2, and was followed by six furlongs in 1:12.40 on March 8, seven furlongs in 1:25.80 on March 13, and a mile in 1:41.20 on March 19, followed by another mile in a sharp 1:38.60 on March 25 when shipped to Santa Anita. Those workouts could be the tip-off that he is ready to handle this step up in class.

A few low-profile longshots also will be in the Santa Derby starting gate as their connections hope to see evidence they belong at this level. These may include Mr. Hot Stuff, Feisty Suances and Gallant Son, a star at Emerald Downs last summer who was a weak fifth in the California Derby.

At Hawthorne Park, the $500,000 Illinois Derby may help solidify the Kentucky Derby credentials of Musket Man, who overcame traffic problems and being wide on the final turn to win the Tampa Bay Derby March 14. Beyond this sprint-bred son of Yonaguska out of a Fortunate Prospect mare, virtually every other prospective Illinois Derby starter will have to win or improve six or seven lengths to be seriously considered for the Kentucky Derby.

Looking ahead, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 11 should attract Win Willy and Old Fashioned, the one-two finishers in the Rebel Stakes March 14, along with Papa Clem, the second-place finisher in the Louisiana Derby. The Blue Grass Stakes on the same day at Keeneland is expected to attract the John Gosden-trained Mafaaz, the only horse who already has qualified for a starting berth in the world's most famous race.