05/04/2008 11:00PM

Derby '08 exemplified racing's awesome and awful


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It's not easy getting a handle on the emotions that Saturday's Kentucky Derby elicited, but here is the best I can do: It's difficult to appreciate fully the high points in life if you don't experience the awful lows.

As racing fans, we have all been affected when horses break down fatally. And a big reason why we always come back is to be thrilled to the core by spine-tingling performances. It's just that we don't expect both to happen in the same race like Saturday's Derby.

Big Brown was absolutely sensational winning the Derby from post 20 in only the fourth start of a career that so far has found him unchallenged, looking very much like a colt with a far better chance for a Triple Crown sweep than the average Derby winner. And the filly Eight Belles won all of us over with her courageous second-place finish, well ahead of 18 males, only to break our hearts seconds later when she suffered fatal injuries pulling up after the race.

What happened to Eight Belles was terribly, terribly unfortunate, obviously for her and her connections, and to be honest about it, for Big Brown, too. And that is because Big Brown was so compelling in shattering a few more old "Derby Rules" - he was the first since the filly Regret in 1915 to win the Derby in his fourth start, and first since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to win the Derby from post 20 - that he doesn't deserve having to share this Derby with another horse, even if we all understand why that has to be.

So for Big Brown it is on to Baltimore and the Preakness, a race that shouldn't have more than a handful of intrepid opponents for the Derby winner - that is how imposing he looks for the middle leg of the Triple Crown. He is obviously fresh, and it is intriguing to think that, still being so inexperienced and with lots of room left for improvement, he has only hinted at how good he might actually become.

Perhaps the only obstacle for Big Brown in the Preakness is the quick turnaround. Big Brown, who has had foot issues in the past, had a six-month gap between his first and second starts, a 24-day gap between his second and third starts, and a five-week gap between that third start, his romp in the Florida Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown has only 14 days between the Derby and Preakness. Then again, he demonstrated Saturday that if you doubt him, you do so at great risk.

As for Eight Belles, some people have already suggested that if the Derby were run on a synthetic racing surface, she wouldn't have broken down. That's nonsense because it is simply impossible to know that would have been the case, and it ignores the fact that synthetic surfaces certainly have not rendered fatal breakdowns extinct.

Form on synthetic surfaces, and its true meaning, was a hot topic of discussion at Churchill on Friday and Saturday. And in my opinion, the results of Churchill's big races served as a repudiation of synthetic-track form.

Some would counter by noting that Giant Gizmo came off wins on the synthetic track at Santa Anita in two of his last three starts and won Friday's Alysheba Stakes; on Saturday, Intangaroo, in her first start away from the synthetic tracks in Southern California, upset the Humana Distaff; and Elite Squadron, coming off a near-miss in a stakes at Keeneland, won the Churchill Downs Handicap. There were, however, extenuating circumstances in each case. Intangaroo never would have gotten close to Hystericalady, let alone beaten her, if Hystericalady hadn't gotten caught up in a crazy four-way speed battle. Elite Squadron had perfectly solid back dirt form, and Giant Gizmo, who won in the slop, might well not have won if Chelokee had gotten through between opponents entering the stretch instead of suffering his career-ending injury.

In the big races, the ones that matter most, synthetic-track form was dismal. In Friday's Kentucky Oaks, Proud Spell, who was beaten almost three lengths by Little Belle in the Ashland on Keeneland's Polytrack in perhaps the worst race of her career, beat Little Belle by five lengths in perhaps the finest performance of her career. And Country Star, whose big reputation last year was built on synthetic tracks, floundered home sixth despite being a daughter of Empire Maker, who won the Belmont Stakes in the slop.

In the Derby, you had to send out a search party for horses who either fashioned their reputations, or earned their way into the starting field, through exploits on synthetic tracks. Second choice Colonel John was never a factor and finished a soundly beaten sixth. Cowboy Cal backed up to finish ninth. Early pacesetter Bob Black Jack, whose fractions were by no means demanding, stopped to finish 16th. Adriano had some early trouble, but finished 19th. And Monba didn't beat anyone.

This, combined with the failure of synthetic-track form at the Breeders' Cup last fall, makes you wonder if there is any major track left that now would consider switching from conventional dirt to a synthetic surface, and risk rendering its racing program irrelevant.

An argument can be made that bettors have already turned their backs on synthetic-track racing, as evidenced by the sharp decline in handle at the Keeneland spring meet, a decline that would have been even worse were there not a massive pick-six carryover on closing day. Could the Derby's results be a catalyst for tracks and racing boards who so quickly fell in love with synthetic racing surfaces to reconsider their position?