03/16/2007 12:00AM

Closers live in big races at Sunland


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you own a 3-year-old you are pointing towards the Kentucky Derby and you would like to add some graded-stakes earnings to his record to improve his chances of getting into the big race, Sunland Park's 1 1/8-mile WinStar Derby won't appeal to you. It is an ungraded stakes.

But if you would like to avoid knocking heads with the leading Kentucky Derby contenders while running for a $600,000 purse, the WinStar Derby is a very appealing spot.

Regardless, there is money to be made on the best card of the Sunland meet.

I took a look at the March 9, 10, 11, and 13 race cards at Sunland to get a feel for the way the track has been playing.

In sprints, horses with early and tactical speed won their fair share of races. Eight of the 23 races were won by horses who were either first or second at the first call, for 34 percent wins.

The trend was different in route races. Five of the six route races were won by horses who were fifth or farther back at the first call. Four of those winners were last or next to last at that point. This doesn't guarantee that a closer will win the WinStar Derby, but it does make that angle worth checking. Is there a strong closer who is proven at route distances and who figures to be a prime contender?

Law Breaker led, or was up close to the early lead, in all four of his races, including the seven-furlong San Vicente last time. If that turns out to be the wrong running style, he will be at a disadvantage.

Forty Grams ran a career-best race when he finished a contending third in the Southwest at Oaklawn last time. He shows four route starts. He was first or second at the first call in three of them. He displayed more flexibility when he rallied from fourth of 10, then pulled away to beat maiden specials at Fair Grounds three races ago. It was a nice rally, but it doesn't make him a closer.

Song of Navarone dueled, then tired late and finished third in the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita. It was an impressive try, especially since the horses who beat him were Ravel and Liquidity. Song of Navarone is a very interesting contender, and he would be my top selection if the track is playing fair. It is possible that he will be able to relax more during the early stages of this race than he did last time. It is encouraging to see that he was able to rally from fourth, seventh, and seventh again in his three sprint races, so a change of style might work.

The contender who seems best equipped to capitalize if off-the-pace runners have the best of it is Solemn Promise. He debuted in a six-furlong sprint, and was 8 1/2 lengths behind the leader at the first call. He circled his rivals to win going away, by 4 1/2 lengths, and earned an 86 Beyer Speed Figure for his performance. If he is willing to rate as kindly as he stretches out, he should be a contender at a square price in the exotics, and will have a chance to win the race.

The WinStar Sunland Park Oaks will be run one race earlier than the Derby. Tough Tiz's Sis looks like the filly to beat. She was up close, lost ground and position when she was blocked, then rallied to beat $80,000 optional claimers last time at Santa Anita. If the track is playing fair to all running styles, she would be my selection. But if Sunland's main track is still favoring closers at route distances, I'll have to look deeper into this field.

Nice Inheritance graduated going six furlongs at Hawthorne, then changed to closing tactics and won a stakes at Remington going 7 1/2 furlongs on the turf. She took three months off, and used deep-closing tactics when she stretched out to a mile on the dirt in her first start on this track. She was up in time to win the Island Fashion Stakes by a half-length. If she improves a little second time back, and her closing style is preferred, she can win the Oaks.