04/23/2008 12:00AM

Derby coming up, but first . . .


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Counter-programming begins in earnest this weekend, when tracks around the country attempt to distract horse owners and horseplayers from that shiny bauble called the Kentucky Derby, dancing on the horizon.

At Hollywood Park on Sunday, the California Gold Rush offers a scattering of 10 different stakes for Cal-breds. The card is topped by the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for 3-year-olds that can serve - for those whose hopes soar ever skyward - as a "prep" for the Preakness. Back down on earth, the Gold Rush program also features the $60,000 NTRA Stakes for maiden 3-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs. That is called branding.

In Florida, Calder is presenting the first running of the Turf Million, offering four stakes worth $1.15 million, and at first glance, it looks like the day was devised with the Christophe Clement stable roster in mind. The trainer will have a contender in all four of the features, including his one-two finishers from the Palm Beach Handicap, Sporting Art and Flying Dismount, in the $400,000 Calder Derby.

The Turf Million card was spared from the fallout over the purse contract quarrel between Calder's parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., and the Florida horsemen's group. As of Wednesday, Churchill Downs was planning to slash Calder purses 30 percent beginning Sunday because of the contract impasse. Just for perspective, the math looks like this. The $5,000 claimers running for an $8,000 purse on Saturday would be running for $5,360 on Sunday. That is called hardball.

The best known of Clement's contingent is In Summation, the topweight in the $250,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint Handicap. As sprinters go, In Summation must rank with the nation's best, even though nitpickers would argue that the 5-year-old son of Put It Pack has not won a race on an old-fashioned dirt track since he was 2.

True enough, but were it not for a dicey trip, though, in the Vernon Underwood at Hollywood Park last December, when he lost by less than a length, In Summation would be working on a six-race winning streak. And the horse certainly deserves a little credit for running six furlongs in 1:06.67 on Jan. 21, while beating Barbecue Eddie by a neck in the Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita.

At Lone Star Park, near Dallas, older runners get a shot at a nice pot in the $300,000 Texas Mile. The race dates back to 1997 and appears to be run for the benefit of California shippers, which makes sense, since it's a straight shot on the interstate from San Bernardino to Ft. Worth. Isitingood, Dixie Dot Com, Bluesthestandard, Kela, and Preachinatthebar all have brought back the bacon, although last year the script had a twist when West Coast invader Bob and John came up just shy of catching Silent Pleasure.

This time around, the Texas Mile is squarely in the sights of Monterey Jazz, who could have stayed home at Hollywood Park to run in the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap on the same afternoon. Apparently, a shot at twice the purse and a big pile of lip-smackin' Texas ribs tipped the decision.

"Actually, I won't be going, but I did tell my assistant to bring me back a big cowboy hat," said trainer Craig Dollase. "The way I look at it, Texas owes me something."

Dollase said it with a laugh, but there is some history to back him up. On the same day in 1998, Dollase sent out Reality Road in the Texas Mile and Futuristic in the Lone Star Derby. Both of them were favored and both finished up the track.

"I remember calling it the Texas Massacre," Dollase said.

In 2004, when Lone Star hosted the Breeders' Cup, Dollase saddled 2003 Distaff runner-up Elloluv in the Distaff again and watched her stumble, grab a quarter, and finish seventh. A little while later, the trainer tried Ancient Title Handicap winner Pt's Grey Eagle in the Sprint, but he got a bad break and finished eighth.

As a horse of exceptional early speed, Monterey Jazz makes his own luck. He won of the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes on some sort of artificial surface at Santa Anita in February, but then, in his next start, he was up the track in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap over a whole different mix. That day, he ran off through an opening mile in 1:34 and change.

"He was a tired horse after that," Dollase said. "I backed off for a couple weeks, just to give him a break."

Monterey Jazz emerged this winter from a modest 3-year-old career to become one of California's most exciting performers. His Strub win was overwhelming, but prior to that his best races had been on grass.

"I don't want to say that he's only a turf horse, even though a lot of turf horses really handle the synthetics," Dollase said. "Although after this weekend, maybe that's what we'll be saying. If he doesn't do well, it will probably be back home to run on grass. But if he runs lights out in Texas - and that's the way he's been training - we'll go for the Metropolitan Mile."