04/18/2013 3:40PM

Byron King: River Rocks, Ground Transport have appeal in 3-year-old stakes

Tom Keyser
River Rocks has shown good early speed in each of his last three starts, with two wins and a runner-up finish.

Class handicappers are unlikely to find River Rocks of interest in Saturday’s Grade 3 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland given that the colt has scored his only victories at Calder in a maiden race and at Gulfstream against restricted Florida-bred allowance competition.

Nor will hot-hand horseplayers like that jockey James Graham was 0 for 47 at the meet entering Thursday’s card.

But one merely needs to watch the replay of River Rocks’s last race March 17 at Gulfstream Park, where he held second in an open, first-level allowance after a speed duel, to view him as a live longshot at his 12-1 morning-line odds.

Making his first start going two turns in that 1 1/16-mile race, River Rocks was bumped leaving the gate and hounded on the lead soon thereafter. Longshot Grey Oak occupied him early, pushing him into a quarter-mile split of 23.09 seconds, and just when he had dispatched that rival, another horse, All Keyed Up, suddenly advanced and forced him into a half-mile in 46.64.

River Rocks again turned aside the challenge, but this time, he seemed to get overly aggressive following that pressure, spurting away to lead by three lengths with three-quarters in 1:11.11. Then fatigue set in, and his lead diminished.

Looking Cool, 13 lengths off the leader after the opening quarter-mile, began to reel him in, cutting his lead to a half-length at the eighth pole and gradually inching away from him late for a half-length victory with 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.96.

Even in defeat, River Rocks ran quickly, posting an 85 Beyer Speed Figure, his third consecutive Beyer in the 80s. That figure matches up well against his 10 Lexington rivals. Of his competitors, only Pure Fun ran marginally faster in her last race, earning an 86 Beyer for her third-place finish in the Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway.

Having raced exclusively on dirt in his four starts, the shift to Polytrack is an unknown for River Rocks on Saturday. But for a Keeneland surface that has a reputation for playing to turf horses and those with prior Polytrack success, dirt horses have performed at a high level this meet.

According to Keeneland’s online “Polycapping” database – available at www.keeneland.com/racing/polycapping-database – entering Thursday’s card at Keeneland, of the 58 Polytrack races this meet that were not won by first-time starters, 28 winners had made their last starts on dirt, 17 had exited turf races, and the remaining 13 came out of races on synthetic surfaces.

Of those 28 dirt winners, 16 had no prior Polytrack experience, just like River Rocks.

Emollient was one such winner in the Grade 1 Ashland, a race in which she sped straight to the front – a tactic River Rocks may emulate in the Lexington.

As for Graham’s winless meet, it seems an aberration from a jockey who has historically performed well at Keeneland. River Rocks represents a rare live mount for him this meet on a day when a number of regular Keeneland jockeys are out of town.

Ground Transport chasing the money

A number of those riders are at Hawthorne on Saturday, following the money in the $750,000 Illinois Derby, which drew 14 starters. Regular Keeneland riders Corey Lanerie, Shaun Bridgmohan, Alan Garcia, Javier Castellano, Miguel Mena, and Brian Hernandez are all there.

Departing, with Hernandez up, is the favorite in a closely matched race, but drawn in post 13 and being a stalker, the possibility of a wide trip is enough of a reason to try to beat him.

Appealing as a price play is Ground Transport, who used his quick-breaking ways and tactical speed to get into decent position from post 13 in the Louisiana Derby, only to tire late and finish fifth.

He earned an 85 Beyer, which trails by only 3 points the 88 Beyers registered by Fordubai, Siete de Oros and Departing, the Illinois Derby’s last-race Beyer leaders.

Now, Ground Transport is much better drawn in post 5, and one has to like the confidence trainer Mike Stidham shows by aiming for the much richer pot in the Illinois Derby rather than the $200,000 Lexington, even though the horse has been based at Keeneland this month and worked a bullet there last Sunday.

Already a two-time winner routing from just four starts, Ground Transport looks attractive at his 8-1 price on the morning line.