06/21/2009 11:00PM

Eye on the second season


As a player who enjoys tinkering with various aspects of my game, I began an unorthodox exercise a few years ago that has proven to be quite helpful on several levels. It involves an examination of all horses who failed to perform well in the Triple Crown races.

Last year, for example, I looked carefully at Colonel John, who ran an uninspiring sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and then watched the way trainer Eoin Harty set him up for a rebound performance that was good enough to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga three months later. This Grade 1 triumph occurred after many players dismissed Colonel John as a "synthetic track horse" based on his sharp form on the hybrid Cushion Track-Pro-Ride racing surface that was in use at Santa Anita early in 2008.

Colonel John's first start back after the 2008 Kentucky Derby was a good third-place finish in the nine-furlong Swaps Stakes on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park on July 12, which seemed to confirm his preference for synthetic surfaces. But in a broader context, it apparently convinced Harty that the son of two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow had overcome his disappointing run at Churchill Downs and deserved another chance to try top quality in a 1 1/4-mile race on dirt.

The lesson learned was carried over to other also-rans in the 2008 Triple Crown races who were well handled during the rest of the year. For example, there was nothing wrong with Adriano that a return to turf racing would not cure. Beaten a staggering 58 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Derby, Adriano gradually recovered his grass form for Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott, winning the Grade 3 Kent Stakes at Delaware Park in his third race back after the Derby debacle. Court Vision and Cowboy Cal were two others who benefitted from a break after running poorly in the Derby, turning in strong performances when returned to grass in the fall. Four others who ran poorly in the Derby benefitted by a respite and a switch back to one-turn races at one mile or less: Gayego, Bob Black Jack, Tale of Ekati, and Visionaire.

On the opposite end of this spectrum, there were equally intriguing horses who did not fare nearly as well after finishing poorly in one or more of the 2008 Triple Crown events. In most cases, their form was compromised by injury or aggressive management that backfired. Among them were Z Fortune and Hey Byrn.

Z Fortune never got a break after his 10th in the Kentucky Derby and was not a serious threat in three subsequent starts during 2008. Hey Byrn was no factor in the Preakness and in three subsequent stakes while seemingly overmatched or spent from a series of good performances in Florida earlier in the year.

If the patterns exposed by last year's performances (and the performances from the two prior years) repeat themselves, we should expect this much from many of the horses who ran poorly in this year's Triple Crown races: Any horse given a reasonable break to recover from a poor performance in the Derby, Preakness or Belmont likely will recover or improve his form if placed on a preferred racing surface or at a suitable distance.

To set some parameters for players to consider, here are five such horses to keep in mind from more than a dozen who ran poorly.

* Atomic Rain: Far back in the Kentucky Derby, the son of Smart Strike made his best bids before the mile marker in four other route races before he seemed spent. On that evidence, Atomic Rain could be an interesting turn-back candidate when trainer Kelly Breen starts him back up during the summer.

* Friesan Fire: I would expect nothing from him for the rest of the year as he heals from two poor performances and injuries apparently suffered during the Preakness. But if retiring trainer Larry Jones - or whoever is training this son of A. P. Indy next year - brings Friesan Fire back to competition, the Louisiana Derby winner might recover his top form when returned to the Fair Grounds as a 4-year-old in 2010. That is exactly what 2007 Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay did in 2008, winning the New Orleans Handicap as a 4-year-old with a career best Beyer Speed Figure of 107.

* Hold Me Back: Made an eye-catching, premature inside move to contention on the backstretch in the Derby before tiring to 12th. With his good synthetic track form and strong breeding for the turf, I would expect to see his trainer, Mott, target a series of turf stakes for him during the summer and fall.

* Luv Gov: Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas might have rushed him into the Preakness and Belmont after the son of Travers winner Ten Most Wanted graduated at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, May 2. That was this colt's 10th start - all at the maiden level - and there was no real evidence that he was a legit Grade 1 horse. This was confirmed by Luv Gov's eighth-place finish in the Preakness, where he was beaten almost eight lengths without making a serious bid, and by his non-threatening fifth in the Belmont, where he was beaten more than 10 lengths. From this point forward, I will be curious to see if Lukas sticks with running him in graded stakes, or first tries to gain the colt's confidence at the allowance level or in a non-graded stakes.

* Terrain: Was no threat while closing ground for seventh in the Preakness, and his only graded stakes win was by double disqualification in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity last September. All three of Terrain's wins have been in one-turn races. Given that, I would get interested in this one if trainer Albert Stall goes for a one-turn stakes, preferably at seven furlongs at the Grade 2 or Grade 3 level.

But realistically, the point of this exercise is to see exactly what the connections do with horses who fared poorly in Triple Crown competition, not to impose my own ideas on what they should do. By maintaining genuine objectivity, interested players will learn as much about the trainer as the horse.