02/04/2009 1:00AM

Capt. Candyman Can might be the real thing


PHILADELPHIA - Before I started to get some sense of what the road to the Kentucky Derby actually meant, I used to take the results of all the preps much too seriously. It took me only about 20 years to get the message that, in the hands of a really smart, patient trainer, each race was just a means to an end.

Winning was nice, but not necessary. Winning was only necessary on the first Saturday of May.

So I looked at last Friday's Hutcheson Stakes and Saturday's Holy Bull Stakes with those thoughts in mind. What did these Gulfstream races mean in the larger context of the Derby? What will the winner look like in three months? What will the others look like?

Projecting is never easy and you better be prepared to call an audible. Initial impressions are often wrong.

Having said and believing all that, I was impressed with Hutcheson winner Capt. Candyman Can. The gelding showed nice 2-year-old progression with Beyer Speed Figures of 86, 79, 85, and 89. He was competitive in three stakes and won the Iroquois at Churchill Downs.

Coming off the bench for the first time in two months, Capt. Candyman Can showed me several dimensions in the Hutcheson - speed to be with the pace, shiftiness to get out of a potential jam when asked to back out by Julien Leparoux, acceleration to run to the top, and the ability to get a 100 Beyer on the second-to-last day of January.

Trained by Ian Wilkes, the longtime assistant to Derby master Carl Nafzger, Capt. Candyman Can looks like a contender to me. The trainer knows the way. He couldn't help but know it, hanging around Nafzger. Any how-to-win-the-Derby book would have to include a long chapter on Nafzger's work with Unbridled and Street Sense.

Please refer to the first paragraph. If there was a moment when the Derby light went on, it was watching Nafzger's work with Unbridled. Which was why so many sharp people picked Street Sense. I wasn't that sharp, of course. But I did, at least, understand why Street Sense was the most likely winner in 2007.

Hello Broadway was also impressive with his second-place finish. Hello Broadway had pace pressure while between horses but never stopped trying and was beaten by 1 1/2 lengths at the wire.

With Beyers of 88, 81, 96, and then 98 in the Hutcheson, Hello Broadway, trained by a man (Barclay Tagg) who knows his way around Churchill Downs in late April and early May, looks like a player to me.

I am not sure what to make of the Holy Bull. Race winner Saratoga Sinner had given no Beyer indication he was about to run the race of his life. But he did. Entering with Beyers of 64, 76, 73, and one win in three starts. Saratoga Sinner stalked the pace of fellow longshot Bear's Rocket, went on by and earned a 96 Beyer.

As it turns out, Saratoga Sinner came out of the race with a chip in his left knee and is off the Kentucky Derby trail.

Bear's Rocket had a career-best Beyer of 76 before earning a 95 in the Holy Bull.

I read where some thought there was a rail bias on Saturday. I did not see all the races, but the charts for the day would not necessarily indicate any bias. Perhaps the surface changed later in the day, which might account for the one-two finish of two very unlikely horses.

For the moment, I am not taking the Saratoga Sinner-Bear's Rocket exacta all that seriously. I am not sure it was the rail that helped. I really have no answer.

And when I have no answer for a result, I tend to ignore it, pending further evidence. Perhaps Saratoga Sinner and Bear's Rocket just found themselves after undistinguished early careers. My guess is that result was a fluke.

The two most accomplished horses in the Holy Bull were West Side Bernie and Beethoven. They were stuck in the two outside posts and ran third and fourth, respectively.

Beethoven was good enough to beat Capt. Candyman Can in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 29. The result of the Hutcheson points out the quality of that race.

We will know more in a few weeks. With the knowledge that any prediction at this point is subject to looking foolish later, I am thinking the Hutcheson will prove the more important prep from last weekend at Gulfstream Park.

I do know this for sure. These preps are just that. Watch with that knowledge that these are just clues to take with you to the final exam.