04/16/2009 11:00PM

Derby has look of a Quality race


PHOENIX - Well, the major Kentucky Derby preps are all done, and really the only thing I can say for sure is that Old Fashioned or The Pamplemousse will not win the roses.

Surely the exploits of I Want Revenge and Papa Clem bolster the status of Pioneerof the Nile out West. Then again, how much of their subsequent success was due to moving from the synthetic surfaces of California to the dirt tracks of Aqueduct and Oaklawn, respectively.

Theregoesjojo falling apart in the Grade 1 Blue Grass surely did not flatter the form of Florida hotshots Quality Road and Dunkirk. Then again, it was his first start on synthetic after being wheeled back quickly off a troubled Grade 1 Florida Derby run. Did the surface and the shipping catch up to him or is the Florida contingent not as strong as we originally thought?

This causes me the most angst because I was leaning to the Floridians. I have nothing to base it on - they haven't run that much faster than I Want Revenge in New York, and I find it perilous to compare dirt figs to synthetic figs. It's more a feeling I've had when watching Quality Road and Dunkirk.

One key could be that the primary speed that was targeting the Derby is no longer there. Old Fashioned and The Pamplemousse, confirmed speed horses, will not be in the Derby. Both are hurt. So while someone may set a brisk pace, it won't be someone with the power of those two horses. It would more likely be a longshot, and that may very well play right into the hands of Quality Road.

This guy has speed, no doubt, but he's not speed-crazy, as he showed in the Florida Derby. The way he sat and pressed the pace, took over at will, was asked to wait and then reignite in the lane was something you don't see from your average horse, or even above-average horse. What it means is Quality Road can use his speed to get a great trip stalking the pace in front of the traffic that often resembles walking through the mall in the days before Christmas. He can reprise the trips of Barbaro or Smarty Jones, pounce when ready, kick clear into the lane, and try to put enough ground between himself and the closers like Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire, Chocolate Candy, and Dunkirk.

Papa Clem has speed as well, and figures to get a similar trip. His style in the Arkansas Derby shadowed what Quality Road did in the Florida Derby.

Yes, Quality Road came out of the Florida Derby with a quarter crack, but he has worked without problem since, including six furlongs at Belmont on Friday. So we're not talking about a situation like Unbridled's Song, who went into the Derby with foot problems and had to wear a bar shoe.

In Quality Road you get the whole package. He has natural speed, a high cruising gear that can have him in a great spot from the start without being taxed. He's bred to handle the distance (his sire Elusive Quality sired Derby hero Smarty Jones) and the way he rebroke in the lane in the Florida Derby when Dunkirk blasted up alongside had the look of one thing: a Derby winner.

Of course, we're still nearly two weeks away. Don't hold me to it.

Another boost for Mitchell?

It's get-out time as Santa Anita comes to a close Sunday with its traditional 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano.

Trainer Mike Mitchell is closing in on the Santa Anita training title and comes to the San Juan with two big bullets - last year's winner Big Booster and rock-solid stayer Church Service.

They have to deal with a couple solid rivals. Midships just won the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at 1 1/2 miles in wire-to-wire fashion when he got away with murder on the front end. There's that possibility again, but he must also deal with another two furlongs. Spring House looked ready to take control of the division with a strong win in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo at 1 1/2 miles two months ago, outfinishing Church Service in the final furlong. However, the 7-year-old came back dull in the San Luis Rey and was vanned off. Trainer Julio Canani reports all is well and he's ready to dive back in, but you always worry about what effects may linger.

Big Booster continues to thrive at age 8 and he appears to be coming into this year's edition as good or better than last year. He can provide the cherry on the cake for Mitchell.