04/29/2008 12:00AM

Colonel John super as Derby key


PHOENIX - It's a week ahead of time, so things could change, but as they stand now I'm in Colonel John's corner when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.

I don't worry in the least hearing all this he's-only-run-on-synthetic stuff. We're not talking about some turf-bred horse who has flourished on the synthetics. We're talking about a horse by the two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow, who never raced on synthetics - he obviously loved the dirt. Colonel John has dirt champion Turkoman on his bottom side. Tiznow has produced such crack dirt horses as Tough Tiz's Sis, Well Armed, Slew's Tizzy, Bear Now, Tiz Wonderful, Liquidity, and champion juvenile filly Folklore. If Colonel John doesn't win or isn't a factor in the Derby, it will be because he's not good enough, not because of the surface.

All the synthetic-bashing and talk of how some of the preps are now made meaningless is puzzling to me. After all, how many huge Blue Grass wins did we see on the Keeneland dirt over the years have little or no bearing on the Kentucky Derby? Wild Syn, Sinister Minister, Millennium Wind and a host of others came acropper at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Why do some critics so conveniently forget these and so many other inscrutable dirt results?

The other knock on Colonel John comes from historians. Some very smart handicappers are critical of the fact that he has had only two races as a 3-year-old in prepping for the Derby and how the numbers for such a horse are bleak (2 for the last 55, with Sunny's Halo and Street Sense the ones succeeding). They point, with good reason, to the likes of Point Given, saying that if a horse that good had only two preps and lost the Derby, that angle is crucial.

There is one big difference, however: Point Given was not supposed to have just two preps. He was targeted for three but a health issue set him back a bit. Colonel John, on the other hand, has been specifically targeted for a two-race lead-up to the Derby. That difference is huge. Street Sense, for example, specifically had a targeted a two-race run-up to the Derby.

I also go back to Barbaro on this argument. He had the traditional three races at 3 going into the Derby. One of those, however, was the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1. Are you telling me that if the Tropical Park Derby had been run 24 hours earlier Barbaro would not have won the Kentucky Derby?

If you look at the last 53 who went into the Derby off two preps and failed, how many of them really belonged in the Derby? You can safely say many of them couldn't have won the Derby with 10 preps or a head start.

Of course, even if you eliminate about half who had no chance to begin with, you are still left with something like 2 for 26, so, yes, it is a daunting number. But the underlying reason a horse had two or three preps may be more crucial than the actual number. And let's face it - much of the handicapping wisdom of 25 years ago has changed. The game has changed, not only in the surfaces we race on, but the way horses are managed.

(An interesting side note - the likely race favorite, Big Brown, also comes into this year's Derby off a two-prep schedule.)

With such a big field, I want to find a linchpin, and for me it's Colonel John, with Big Brown playing a key role as well. I know, those are the two favorites, but my plan involves superfectas, so if I can get a bomb or two to fill the other two slots I can be lined up at the IRS window.

So, here's a tentative plan, subject to adjustment based on the week's events, weather, and last-minute news.

I'm going to formulate a few $1 superfecta tickets. My first has Colonel John/Big Brown/8 horses/8 horses. Those eight horses in both spots are Pyro, Visionaire, Bob Black Jack, Court Vision, Eight Belles, Gayego, Monba, and Smooth Air (sub Denis of Cork if Eight Belles doesn't go). That's $56. I'll repeat that with Colonel John/the 8/Big Brown/the 8 ($56) and again Colonel John/the 8/the 8/Big Brown ($56).

Then, three more tickets using Colonel John in the second spot: Big Brown/Colonel John/the 8/the 8 ($56) and the 8/Colonel John/Big Brown/the 8 ($56) and the 8/Colonel John/the 8/Big Brown ($56). That's six tickets at $56 apiece ($336).

For me to have a chance to win, Colonel John has to run first or second, and Big Brown has to be in the top four. Happy hunting.