04/14/2008 11:00PM

Derby shapes up a sizzler

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The six major Kentucky Derby prep races in April may not have isolated the 2008 Derby winner, but it has identified one important aspect of the America's most famous race.

The pace is going to be hot, hot hot.

Consider the exceptional speed asserted by War Pass in the Wood Memorial, the solid speed shown by Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby, the high cruising speed of Gayego in the Arkansas Derby, and the evenly paced speed displayed by Recapturetheglory in the Illinois Derby.

Consider also that none of those fast horses had to deal with the exceptional speed of Big Brown, whose Florida Derby on March 29 remains the most impressive display of route speed by a 3-year-old seen this year.

We also saw good early speed from other possible Derby starters: Cowboy Cal in the Blue Grass, My Friend Charlie in the Louisiana Derby, and Tres Borrachos in the Arkansas Derby. In addition, the Holy Bull stakes winner Hey Byrn flashed stalking speed in his three wins at Gulfstream this year, and Tale of Ekati's best race - winning the Wood - saw him attack War Pass from fewer than two lengths behind the blistering seven-furlong pace.

Should all or most of the above-named horses actually start in the Derby, we could be looking at a first quarter-mile in 22 seconds and change, a half-mile in 46, and six furlongs in 1:10 or so. Such a pace can lead to only one of three things:

H Big Brown proving that he is a superstar able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least dust off such fractions en route to a Seattle Slew-like performance.

H One of the quality speed types, the ones who have good form at nine furlongs, displaying controlled stalking speed and staying out of the suicidal pace battle, and still delivering enough in the stretch to win the 10-furlong classic. Perhaps this will be the ticket for Tale of Ekati, or the Arkansas Derby winner Gayego, or even Recapturetheglory, who set evenly paced fractions winning the Illinois Derby as if he is not a need-the-lead type.

H Of course, the most probable outcome from such a suicidal pace scenario will be a lot of tired horses struggling to reach the top of the stretch in 1:36 with no energy left to get 10 furlongs in 2:03.

The last of the above three scenarios would, of course, set up a perfect forum for the best stretch-runners in the prospective Derby field, including the Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John and perhaps the curiously ineffective Blue Grass Stakes favorite Pyro.

While Pyro flashed a powerful late kick winning two graded stakes at the Fair Grounds, he was never a factor in the April 12 Blue Grass on Keeneland's Polytrack. Was it the track? Or was Pyro dealing with a hidden physical issue that will come to light only in the remaining two weeks?

Another horse who might be well served by the likely hot pace is Z Fortune, who finished a strong second in the highly rated Arkansas Derby after performing in the shadow of his more accomplished stablemate Pyro through much of the year.

A New York-bred graded stakes winner in Louisiana this winter, Z Fortune stumbled at the start and went a bit wide on the first turn of the Arkansas Derby. He was used for position on the backstretch, then picked up his pace to reach a strong striking position on the turn before finishing quite well through the stretch, though unable to take the measure of Gayego.

Interestingly, Gayego's strong winning performance in the Arkansas Derby - as well as the good efforts by Tres Borrachos and Indian Sun, who were third and fourth - offer clues for horseplayers seeking answers to one of the most dynamic questions in this year's Derby.

Will the form established by Colonel John, Bob Black Jack, and others who raced on synthetic tracks in California stand up at Churchill Downs?

Beyond the Arkansas Derby, here are some additional clues to consider.

Southern California-based filly Indian Blessing was a strong winner and a good second in two stakes on dirt at the Fair Grounds in February and March.

Tiago won the Oaklawn Handicap on April 5 in the best performance of his career after three straight races on various versions of Santa Anita's synthetic track.

Western-based Zenyatta remained undefeated winning the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn on the same April 5 Oaklawn card, putting forth her career best while making her dirt track debut.

After asserting moderate form while winning the California Derby on Golden Gate Fields's synthetic Tapeta track, Yankee Bravo turned in his career best, finishing a good third to Pyro in the Louisiana Derby.

As for the positive implication of a good race in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, or the negative impact of a poor race on that Polytrack surface, we are left with far fewer clues.

For example, last year Street Sense ran quite well although narrowly losing the Blue Grass to longshot Dominican in a tight five-horse battle. At Churchill Downs three weeks later, returning to the scene of his 10-length Breeders' Cup Juvenile triumph in 2006, Street Sense turned in an excellent winning performance in his third start of the year to validate trainer Carl Nafzger's exceptional game plan. At the same time, Dominican and the others who ran so well in the Blue Grass failed to hold their form in the Kentucky Derby.

While this year's Blue Grass earned Derby starting berths for the Todd Pletcher-trained pair of Monba and Cowboy Cal, Monba was returning to his favorite surface at Keeneland, while owning a potentially important win at Churchill Downs last year.

Cowboy Cal - a multiple-stakes-winning turf horse - was another in a long list of grass specialists that have made an easy switch to synthetic track racing. But what now can we expect from Cowboy Cal on dirt at Churchill Downs? If he runs his best career race, won't he contribute even more heat to the expected hot pace?

Beyond Pletcher's pair, can we completely discount the relatively poor performances of so many in the Blue Grass field? Can we trust Pyro to recover his form completely at Churchill Downs, or will the lack of a final meaningful prep race prove to be a Derby Day issue?

Likewise, is there any reason to believe that the Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man- ninth in the Blue Grass - is ready to jump up and run the race of his life in the Kentucky Derby? The same question probably applies to the Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, who was just a neck behind Pyro in 11th.

On the other hand, the Gotham Stakes winner Visionaire probably gained just enough from his modest fifth-place finish to remain one of a few that could benefit from an enervating pace duel.

At the bottom line, every Kentucky Derby always comes with complicated handicapping dilemmas that relate to the overall class, condition and pace scenarios presented by horses shipping in from all over the country. But this year, even with the synthetic track issue, a probable red-hot pace seems to be at least one clear-cut reason to take a stand for or against Big Brown while downgrading or eliminating all the other potential speed horses in the field.

Note: In my column two weeks ago about Big Brown's Florida Derby - a column about watching races carefully, no less - I noted that Big Brown was angling towards the inside rail "despite a left-handed whip." Not true. He was angling in under left-handed rein-pulls by jockey Kent Desormeaux, who was trying to keep him from bearing out as he had on the final turn. Either way, the erratic course through the stretch remains a source of concern, given Big Brown's history of hoof problems.