01/25/2010 12:00AM

Early clues in Derby preps

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Louis Hodges Jr.
Ron the Greek took advantage of a fast pace to score an upset victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte.

NEW YORK - In the grand scheme of things, Saturday's at Fair Grounds were only small, early steps on the long road to the May 1 Kentucky Derby. That, and the fact that the favorites were denied in both races, might lead to the inclination to resist assigning much, if any, importance to these events. But to completely disregard these races might not be so smart.

That could be especially true for the Holy Bull, because the first two finishers - Winslow Homer and Jackson Bend - are nice colts perfectly capable of doing more important things.

Winslow Homer was the second Tony Dutrow-trained colt to charge from off the pace and win a 3-year-old stakes this month at Gulfstream (A Little Warm took the Spectacular Bid earlier in the meet), and Dutrow deserves credit for managing a substantial class jump Saturday. Although he had earned comparatively good Beyer Speed Figures for his maiden win at Saratoga in his second career start and crushing a suspect group at Philadelphia Park in his most recent outing, Winslow Homer on Saturday faced a Grade 1 winner in Homeboykris and two others in Aikenite and Piscitelli who were close to the highest-ranked members of their division last year, not to mention he had to face Jackson Bend. And while a fast (at least by Gulfstream one-turn mile standards) and contested pace played into Winslow Homer's hands in the Holy Bull, he succeeded at a distance that his connections insist is shorter than what will eventually be his best.

Jackson Bend earned the highest two-turn Beyer of any 2-year-old of 2009 last time out, when he completed his sweep of the Florida Stallion Series despite a horrendous trip that had to cost him several lengths. He might have fallen just less than a length shy of winning his sixth straight in the Holy Bull, but he lost little in stature. Unlike Winslow Homer, Jackson Bend was an active participant in the pace battle. And unlike Winslow Homer, who mostly saved ground around the far turn and was blessed with a big gap between horses in upper stretch to split rivals, Jackson Bend was caught three wide on the far turn and was floated four wide into the stretch. But Jackson Bend fought on. When it looked like Winslow Homer might win by open lengths, Jackson Bend would not allow it.

Homeboykris, who finished fifth, probably doesn't want to be a part of the early pace like he was Saturday, but he still must prove that his Grade 1 Champagne wasn't a soft race. Piscitelli, who backed up to finish last of nine after leading at the first call, must do something to challenge the belief that he's better on synthetic surfaces.

Only Aikenite, who finished sixth, gets a pass from me. It's a mystery why Aikenite, a closer, was battling for the early lead in a race that was one turn too short for him in the first place.

A fast pace also was a critical component in the Lecomte and why Maximus Ruler was the brightest spot here even in defeat. The pace in the Lecomte was so strong that marginal contenders Ron the Greek and Letsgetitonmon were able to finish first and third, respectively, largely because they were two of the three back-runners for the first three-quarters of the race.

On the other hand, Maximus Ruler, who was favored off two solid performances last fall at Churchill, managed to finish second in the Lecomte, which was a huge feather in his cap. Maximus Ruler, in sharp contrast to the way he came from off the pace in Kentucky, was the one who set the pace, which had to be a shock to anyone who gave the Lecomte past performances an even cursory glance.

Why it was so important for Maximus Ruler to outrun the overmatched 36-1 shot Depaul for the early lead Saturday is a question that might never receive a satisfactory answer. If Maximus Ruler conceded the lead to Depaul and didn't extend himself so much early, he probably would have won. In any event, Maximus Ruler has shown enough ability and did more than enough Saturday for him to be handled more confidently in the future.

Back on Derby path

Since we're talking about 3-year-olds, one of the biggest things that a switch back to a dirt track at Santa Anita could do is re-establish the relevancy of the Santa Anita route to the Kentucky Derby. The Southern California path to the Derby was always a productive one, but after this route went synthetic in 2008, there was very real cause to question if it was still as important. This path was, after all, acting as a springboard to a race run on an entirely different surface.

The best finish in the Kentucky Derby of the five who graduated from Santa Anita's synthetic prep program (and that includes Colonel John, second choice in the 2008 Derby) was the second last year by Pioneerof the Nile. But even though he finished second, let's be honest, Pioneerof the Nile, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, San Felipe, and Robert Lewis, by no means ran well. He was crushed by almost seven lengths by the 50-1 Mine That Bird and really should have been disqualified from second for stretch interference.

Perhaps the biggest vote of no confidence for synthetic Derby preps in California came from the connections of three California-based horses: Gayego, Papa Clem, and I Want Revenge. All three ran well enough in early preps at Santa Anita to have every reason to stay the course there. Instead, they hit the road early in search of dirt preps. That they did makes what they did in Kentucky pretty much beside the point. But for the record, Gayego, winner of the 2008 Arkansas Derby, finished 17th in Kentucky; Papa Clem, second last year in the Louisiana Derby and winner of the Arkansas Derby, finished fourth; and I Want Revenge, dominant winner of the Gotham and Wood Memorial, would have vied for favoritism but was scratched due to injury.