04/05/2007 12:00AM

Don't dismiss speed at Keeneland


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Last fall, Keeneland played like the racetrack equivalent of Bizzaro World, the fictional DC comics planet created in the late 1950's in which things were the opposite as on Earth.

In Keeneland's first meet on the synthetic Polytrack strip, speed was a liability, not an advantage. And horses racing along the outside often performed better than those that raced on the fence, which for years had been the path to glory at the track.

The races even unfolded differently. With jockeys sensing that speed was not holding, many took hold of their mounts in the early stages, creating races with little pace. This, in turn, produced races in which victory was determined by who could accelerate fastest over the final quarter-mile, making such races play more like grass races than dirt contests.

Now the question is, will it stay that way when Keeneland's spring meeting begins Friday? Or will the track begin to play more like Woodbine and Turfway Park, two other tracks with Polytrack surfaces? At those tracks, speed has held at a decent rate, although not as well as at traditional dirt tracks.

My guess - and that is all one can do at this point - is that we will start to see Keeneland become a bit kinder to front-runners. It won't be like the old speed-biased days at Keeneland, mind you, but perhaps it will fall in line with Woodbine and Turfway.

Horsemen familiar with Turfway have told me that track has settled over time, particularly following rain, and therefore has become more favorable to speed horses than when it was first introduced in the fall of 2005.

If that is the case, and speed begins to fare better, there might be a little value on front-runners early in the Keeneland meet, with the anti-speed bias from the fall still etched in the minds of the betting public.

The speedy Mistical Plan is my play in the Ashland Stakes for that reason. With some handicappers expecting her to regress at Keeneland, she could offer a hint of value, likely starting as the second betting choice behind Octave, even after beating that rival in the March 10 Fair Grounds Oaks. She is 7-2 on the track morning line, behind Octave at 2-1.

Mistical Plan ran eighth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet in her only start on a synthetic surface, which came over Hollywood's similar Cushion Track footing. But it might not be wise to dismiss her on Polytrack, because she had a tough trip in the Starlet, which compromised her finish.

Bumped hard at the break, she found herself having to stalk a fast pace while wide - not how she does her best running. This is a filly that wants to be on the lead or very close to the pace.

I am also encouraged by the fact that she has trained regularly over Cushion Track at Hollywood Park for trainer Doug O'Neill. My instinct is that if he had doubts regarding her ability to handle a synthetic surface, she would be somewhere other than Keeneland for her final start before the Kentucky Oaks.

In an Ashland field with only a moderate amount of speed, she should be able to get her preferred trip.

Brilliant can fire fresh

Keeneland has only one other stakes race Saturday, the $100,000 Lafayette, but it may as well have another. The seventh race, a $67,000 money allowance at 1 1/8 miles on turf, offers a deep, stakes-quality field. A horse that performs well in there could conceivably return in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Although Brilliant has not raced since finishing sixth in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby last fall, he is my choice to win off the bench. Training at the Fair Grounds this winter, Brilliant has been working consistently on a weekly basis since mid-January, giving the impression that he has plenty of foundation leading up to Saturday's race.

Winner of the Grade 2 Jefferson Cup and Grade 3 Kent Breeders' Cup last year, Brilliant had a valid excuse for his most-recent performance when beaten 6 3/4 lengths as the favorite in the Hawthorne Derby. Scoped after the race, he was found to have had a lung infection, trainer Neil Howard said.

Howard had planned to run Brilliant back in the Commonwealth Turf at Churchill Downs in mid-November of last year, but when the colt tied up after training shortly before the race, Howard opted to freshen him and gear him up for a 4-year-old campaign.

Expect him to be ready.

* Keeneland is once again hosting a free online handicapping contest, with daily and meet-end prizes being offered. Top prize is $3,000. Those wishing to participate can sign up at http://ww2.keeneland.com/racing/