05/12/2005 11:00PM

Fair track was all they needed

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PHOENIX - The West Coast boys - and girl, if you include Sweet Catomine - took a lot of beating this winter and spring. There were many who said they were too slow, too mediocre, that their trip to Kentucky might have been better served if they simply went to see the caves instead of the Twin Spires.

Oops.

All the Southern California kids did was finish first, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Not one Zito or Pletcher horse beat them. And it's entirely possible the four best Californians - Declan's Moon, Sweet Catomine, Consolidator and Roman Ruler - were not in the gate Derby Day.

Sure, things set up wonderfully for the Californians, but that should not take away from their performances. In fact, in retrospect we shouldn't be stunned that they performed admirably. The main 3-year-old races out West were dominated by speed. Record rainfall this winter forced track superintendent Steve Wood into sealing and scraping the track, which led to speed thoroughly dominating. That may explain big efforts by the likes of Going Wild and Spanish Chestnut, and less-than-stellar efforts by the likes of closers such as Giacomo, Wilko, and Don't Get Mad.

The Californians came to Kentucky and caught a track that, while fast, played fair. They caught their kind of pace and showed they were actually much better than those California races made them look.

When the California stock got knocked, it led to the natural tendency to upgrade the Florida group. I remember several years ago the Santa Anita Derby one-two runners were bashed for running slowly. The runners? A.P. Indy and Bertrando. They turned out pretty well, didn't they?

You're never too old to learn another lesson in this game.

In other Derby Week issues:

* Some were ready to blame Bandini's poor showing (19th) on his mental make-up, saying his sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, was a nut. That doesn't hold up. Dad may have been colorful, but his reputation seems to be getting worse as the years go by. He wasn't some crazy rogue, and his behavior didn't keep him from winning the Derby.

As far as Bandini goes, we now know something went awry - he's to have surgery to remove a bone chip in his right front ankle. Otherwise it's hard to imagine he could look so good in the Blue Grass and be such a complete no-show in the Derby.

* Don't Get Mad and Ron Ellis proved you can go back to what used to work. The Derby Trial is no longer a Derby trial, but not because horses are more fragile than they used to be. It's because training methods have changed drastically from the days of Ben Jones. Don't Get Mad looked super in the Derby Trial and showed you can come back in a week, running on to be fourth in the Derby.

Ellis is one of the more conservative trainers around, so the fact he saw fit to run his horse back on short rest ought to tell you it was a legitimate plan of attack.

* You've got to give Zito this much: Just minutes after none of his five were a factor in the final furlong of the Derby, he stood up there like a man, congratulated the winners, and said he would be back. Well done.

* We've got to get the Derby down to 16 horses. Twenty adds up to nothing but danger and chaos.

* Miss Terrible was a legend in Argentina, and her story is one of perseverance. She won 8 of 9, including seven straight Grade 1's, and was a multi-year champion down there. She came to the U.S. but injured a knee twice, the second time more seriously. She was gone for nearly 19 months but has fought her way back, and her victory on Derby Day in the Grade 3 Comp USA Turf Mile at Churchill Downs was her second graded victory in this country.