10/19/2001 11:00PM

Calder: Switch to dirt suits Western Pride

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Heavy rains forced the $200,000 Calder Derby to be switched from the turf to the main track. The surface switch played right into the hands of Western Pride, who made a triumphant return to Miami by posting an easy five-length victory over Tour of the Cat.

The race would have had Grade 3 status if it had been contested on the grass as originally scheduled, but its graded status will now be reviewed by the National Graded Stakes Committee.

Western Pride has never run on the turf and took full advantage of the late change to lead throughout under regular rider Dana Whitney. Tour of the Cat, a versatile sort who finished second behind Thunder Blitz in the Grade 3 Flamingo Stakes earlier this year, was well placed while saving ground early, eased out to challenge the winner turning for home but proved no match through the stretch. Built Up finished a tiring third.

Strategic Partner, Boastful, Star Over the Bay, and Diablo Reigns were all scratched once the race was taken off the grass.Western Pride needed six tries before finally earning his diploma at Calder in his 2000 finale. He improved dramatically upon leaving south Florida early last winter and entered the Calder Derby having won five of his last six starts, including the Grade 2 Ohio Derby in which he defeated reigning 2-year-old champion Macho Uno.

Western Pride paid a seemingly generous $5.20 despite coming into the race off a Grade 2 win. He covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.12 over a sloppy track.

"He's grown up and filled out since last December," said trainer Richard Estvanko. "Everything fell into place mentally and physically. He's a different horse. We really wanted to run him on the turf to see if he liked it because we'd like to run him in the Hollywood Derby."

Estvanko said the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23 is also an option.