Updated on 09/16/2011 7:01AM

Off the Holiday bandwagon


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The outlook for the Kentucky Derby was supposed to be clearer after the weekend's major stakes races. After Booklet and Harlan's Holiday faced each other in the Florida Derby, and the top-ranked 3-year-old Siphonic ran in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, at least one seemed likely to emerge as a leader of his generation.

But nothing of the sort happened. The Florida race was inconclusive at best, the California race a shocker. Not a single horse in the country (nor in Europe or Dubai, for that matter) possesses unshakable credentials for the Derby.

In the view of most observers, including his trainer Ken McPeek, Harlan's Holiday delivered an impressive performance at Gulfstream Park.

The colt had found himself at a tactical disadvantage in his first two meetings with Booklet, finishing second in both, but he finally had conditions in his favor Saturday. Booklet got involved in a suicidal duel with another speed horse; Harlan's Holiday stalked them, then accelerated on the turn and drew off to an authoritative 3 1/2-length victory.

So what's wrong with this? Harlan's Holiday didn't run fast. His time of 1:48.80 for 1 1/8 miles translated into a Beyer Speed figure of 101 - a mediocre effort, far from the 110 that is typically needed to win the Kentucky Derby. To many fans this may sound like a quibble, since Harlan's Holiday did everything he was supposed to do.

But to a speed handicapper, the following is gospel: When a horse gets a perfect trip (as when a stretch-runner benefits from an insane speed duel ahead of him), he will almost always earn a superior figure. If he gets all the breaks and doesn't run fast, his performance cannot be considered a good one.

When Harlan's Holiday lost to Booklet in their first two meetings, I believed that he was the superior horse and was a charter member of his fan club. After the Florida Derby, I hereby submit my resignation.

Siphonic had many fans after his solid performances as a 2-year-old - a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (after running on a dead rail) and a big win in the Hollywood Futurity. He lost his 3-year-old debut after a disastrously bad start but had no excuses Sunday as he tired and finished third behind lightly regarded Medaglia d'Oro.

While young horses ideally make steady progress to the Kentucky Derby, Siphonic regressed. California-based clocker Bruno De Julio delivered an insightful assessment of Siphonic earlier this season. He said that the colt's training before the Hollywood Futurity "would rank among the top five training performances I have seen in my 12-year career of watching works."

But in recent weeks, De Julio said, Siphonic "has not looked like his explosive self . . . He was trained like a horse trying to play catch-up. He is not the same horse." Those were prophetic words, suggesting that Siphonic's poor effort was no fluke but part of a downward trend. He's not going to be draped with roses.

But who is? The other leading 3-year-olds have knocks against them, too:

Repent has won three straight stakes since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and his powerful stretch-running style makes him look like a natural for the Derby. Yet how good is he? In the Breeders' Cup, he was the beneficiary of a fast pace and a racing strip that favored stretch-runners; since then he has been beating poor fields without running fast. He won the Louisana Derby by a nose, with a figure of 95.

Johannesburg captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after winning six straight races on grass in Europe, but despite his admirable record he seemed a questionable Derby prospect. He won the Breeders' Cup with the aid of a perfect trip, and he doesn't have an ideal pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance. But when his trainer announced that he might give the colt a single seven-furlong prep race in Ireland, Johannesburg's prospects went from doubtful to impossible. American colts go through 1 1/8-mile prep races because it is necessary to be ultra-fit for the stress of the Derby.

Even if Johannesburg were a superhorse (which he is not) it is doubtful he could win in Kentucky with such preparation.

Came Home is the only contender who has done nothing wrong. My early pick for the Derby, he won his first race around two turns when he captured the San Rafael Stakes in California with authority. But his pedigree is so questionable that even his owners are taking the road to the Derby one hesitant step at a time.

The most likely Derby scenario is for a little-known colt to bloom in the weeks before the Derby. It could be the San Felipe winner Medaglia d'Oro, who earned a speed figure of 107 in only the third start of his career. It could be Buddha, who ran away with an allowance race on the Florida Derby card. It could be the lightly raced Sunday Break, trained by Neil Drysdale, who won the Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus two years ago. Such inexperienced colts are usually at a disadvantage when they take on the top members of their generation in the classics, but this year there appears to be plenty of room at the top.

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