04/01/2008 11:00PM

Final preps pose surface dilemma

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The trainers of Southern California-based Kentucky Derby prospects are facing a difficult decision this month: whether to have their horses' last Derby prep on a synthetic surface, or take a leap into the great unknown now and race on dirt, the surface over which the Derby is run.

In the case of Colonel John and El Gato Malo, it was decided to remain home and race on Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. By doing so, both will be competing over a surface on which they have thrived this winter. But, should they perform well and head to the Kentucky Derby four weeks later, they will arrive at Churchill Downs without having any racing experience on dirt.

In the case of Gayego, it was decided on Wednesday to go with the original plan and travel to next week's Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Like Colonel John and El Gato Malo, Gayego to this point has raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces.

And in the case of Bob Black Jack, trainer James Kasparoff was desirous of racing on dirt in the Arkansas Derby, but, facing the real possibility of being squeezed out of that race because of insufficient earnings, decided the next-best option was to stay home. On Wednesday, he entered Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby, swelling the field to 11.

"If we don't enter the horse, and then gamble on getting into the Arkansas Derby, we could be left out in the cold," Kasparoff said after Bob Black Jack landed post 4. "He drew pretty decent, so we'll probably end up running."

Paulo Lobo, the trainer of Gayego, on Tuesday had left open the possibility of switching to the Santa Anita Derby once Georgie Boy went down with an injury, but on Wednesday he said he was going to Oaklawn.

The reason - racing on dirt.

"For sure, for sure," Lobo said when asked if getting experience on dirt was the crucial factor. "I think the track there will suit him very much."

As far as Eoin Harty and Craig Dollase are concerned, though, they'll stick it out in California.

"I'm a big fan of the synthetics," said Dollase, who trains the once-beaten El Gato Malo. "Whatever it takes to keep my horse sound and happy, I'm going to keep him there, and that's right here."

El Gato Malo drew post 8, and the Harty-trained Colonel John got post 5, when the field was drawn Wednesday for the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. Others in the race, from the rail out, are Yankee Bravo, Signature Move, Coast Guard, Bob Black Jack, On the Virg, Shore Do, Polonius, Meetingwithdestiny, and Rossa Corsa.

Dollase trains at Hollywood Park, whose surface is Cushion Track. Santa Anita originally installed Cushion Track, but after 11 days of washouts this season, the track added material from another synthetic-surface manufacturer, Pro-Ride. At Hollywood, Dollase said, the wet weather never had an impact on training, which allowed him to stick to his schedule, another reason he is in favor of synthetic surfaces.

"I've had no issues at all," Dollase said. "The track has been great, no hiccups at all. We've been able to train right through it. He hasn't missed a beat.

"Horses tend to get a lot of fitness off these tracks. When they first put in the synthetic surface at Hollywood, Santa Anita still had dirt, and horses who trained here and ran there did very, very well."

That synthetic-to-dirt switch comforts both Dollase and Harty, who believe that their horses, rather than being hampered by synthetic surfaces in advance of the Derby, may actually have an edge.

"I think it's advantageous to train on the synthetics," Dollase said. "They get so much fitness out of it, when they run on dirt it's like running on a freeway."

Harty said he has had more peace of mind training on synthetic surfaces.

"Half the battle is just actually getting them there," Harty said. "You hold your breath every day when you show up at the barn, saying 'How's my horse?' "

Harty has been based at Santa Anita all winter, though he did send Colonel John across town to Hollywood Park when in need of a crucial workout during the time that Santa Anita was having problems with its surface.

"We had a couple of minor glitches early in the meet that we had to train around, but everything's been good since the Australians got involved," Harty said, referring to Pro-Ride, which is based in Australia.

If Colonel John moves on to the Kentucky Derby, Harty said he will leave for Louisville "about 10 days to two weeks out" in order to let Colonel John train on dirt.

"He will train on the Churchill Downs surface to allay any doubt on my part or the general public," Harty said.

That's one concern trainer Paddy Gallagher put to rest for Yankee Bravo by running in last month's Louisiana Derby. Rather than wait until Derby Day to find out if he liked dirt, or even the last round of preps this month, Gallagher sent Yankee Bravo to Fair Grounds, where he finished third in his first start on dirt, then came back home for the Santa Anita Derby.

"We wanted to try him on dirt," Gallagher said. "His race was really encouraging."

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Recapture the Glory was announced as another late nominee to the Triple Crown by Triple Crown Productions, bringing the total of late nominees to 11 and the overall number of nominees to 460, which equals the overall record set last year. There has been a common nomination form for the Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes since 1986.

* Majestic Warrior, who finished sixth in the Florida Derby last Saturday, is off the Derby trail, according to trainer Bill Mott, who said Majestic Warrior would be pointed to the Grade 3, $150,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on April 26, and then, if all goes well, the Preakness three weeks later.

- additional reporting by David Grening

WHO’S HOT: No one is hotter than Big Brown, whose dominant performance in the Florida Derby propelled him all the way to the favorite’s role on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. He is now 7-2 after being 25-1 a week ago. There was an overhaul to the Derby Watch top 25, with five new horses – Atoned, My Pal Charlie, Salute the Sarge, Smooth Air, and Tomcito – coming aboard this week. Atoned and Smooth Air are 40-1 on Watchmaker’s line, Salute the Sarge 50-1, and both My Pal Charlie and Tomcito are 60-1.

WHO’S NOT: Five horses – Cowboy Cal, Elysium Fields, Fierce Wind, Georgie Boy, and Majestic Warrior – were dropped from the top 25. Elysium Fields, Fierce Wind, and Majestic Warrior all disappointed in the Florida Derby, Georgie Boy is injured, and Cowboy Cal was squeezed out because he is currently well down the graded stakes earnings list, which is becoming increasingly critical this year.

ON THE BUBBLE: Texas Wildcatter was an unlucky loser of the Gotham Stakes last month. A top performance from him on Saturday in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct could give him enough earnings to put him in the Derby, and thus on the list. There is so much money up for grabs on Saturday in the Wood, Santa Anita Derby, and Illinois Derby that several heretofore unheralded runners – like On the Virg in the Santa Anita Derby – have an opportunity to make a great leap forward.– Jay Privman