04/15/2008 11:00PM

Gayego shows he's got the moves


PHILADELPHIA - Without getting too heavily into the artificial surface debate, which just confuses me anyway, I actually think there are a few things we do know about the Kentucky Derby.

Big Brown is absolutely the most talented horse. The triple-digit Beyers make that rather obvious. Watching the horse makes it even more obvious.

Still, if Curlin could not win the Derby, possibly because of inexperience, it is going to be hard to bet Big Brown at low odds in a 20-horse field where the potential for a very hot pace could lead to Giacomo II.

If Big Brown's Florida Derby was the most impressive prep performance, I think Gayego's Arkansas Derby was not far behind. Coming out of the artificial world of Southern California, Gayego proved quite real.

Gayego not only got a 103 Beyer, he also showed my favorite double move in the race. First, he stalked a solid pace and smoothly moved by the pacesetter in the stretch. Then, when challenged in the stretch by Z Fortune, Gayego dug in and re-broke near the wire.

Point Given had that move. So did Barbaro in the Derby. Now, I am not comparing Gayego to those two major stars, just the move. I think Gayego is a major player in the Derby. In fact, given his overall form, I think he is the most likely horse to hit the superfecta.

That Gayego is by Gilded Time is certainly cause for distance concern. But the breed has changed so much in recent years, it is hard to say how much that matters these days.

It is not like the 103 came out of nowhere. Gayego got a 102 in the San Pedro on Jan. 20. The colt did race twice as a 2-year-old so he does have some foundation. That the horse has never been worse than second in five starts (a lot these days for a Derby horse) says something about his consistency in a year of inconsistency.

Speaking of the Arkansas Derby, can somebody explain why this is not a Grade 1 race? The purse is $1omillion. The four Arkansas Derby winners prior to Gayego were Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, and Curlin. Beyond the obvious star power in those names, they represent three 3-year-old champions, a handicap champion, a Horse of the Year, and two Horse of the Year runners-up.

As for the Blue Grass, I was never a big fan of Pyro, given the 90 and 95 Beyers this year. But the colt got a 73 Beyer in the Blue Grass. This is a colt who had never been worse than third in six starts. Then, he runs 10th and drops 20 Beyer points. This is a rather significant variation.

Everybody I heard said Pyro looked great in the paddock and on the track. Once the race started, Pyro never looked interested at any point. He just sort of ran in place. I have to think it was the Polytrack.

I don't pretend to understand the Polytrack factor. I can't quantify it. I can only tell you this. I picked Cowboy Cal to win the race and the colt nearly won it.

Think about that. Cowboy Cal had run once on dirt, a seventh-place finish in his debut last August at Saratoga. Then, he proved to be a terrific grass runner over four different courses. It is possible Cowboy Cal just was not ready for his debut and became a stakes horse when stretched out. Or maybe the colt just can't deal with dirt.

Cowboy Cal's trainer, Todd Pletcher, is one of the sharpest people in the game. I don't think Pletcher would have run Cowboy Cal in a Derby prep race on dirt, given his grass acumen and the unknowns about his dirt form. But grass form really does seem to transfer to Polytrack. Pletcher knew it. And I knew it, even though I have spent the last several months chasing basketballs around the country.

That the Blue Grass also came up paceless made it a great spot for Cowboy Cal. Still, that this colt was a reasonable play at 8-1 strikes me as just wrong. This is not a game I really understand, even though I am trying to adapt.

The other Pletcher horse, Monba, won the Blue Grass. I am finding it difficult to generate much enthusiasm about that. The winning Beyer was 92. That is not the kind of number that is going to win the Derby. Or probably even get into the superfecta.

So, let's review. Big Brown is very fast. Gayego is fast enough and consistent. And whatever you may know about the other 18 horses is probably more than I do. So, good luck.