04/04/2008 12:00AM

If this longshot gets the trip, bombs away

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Go ahead and knock the California 3-year-olds. They always are easy targets.

Based on speed figures, the local Kentucky Derby prospects are not particularly fast. Furthermore, apart from sidelined Rebel Stakes winner Sierra Sunset, they have not done much of anything outside California.

So maybe they aren't that great. But really, how would anyone know? The nuances of synthetic surfaces have complicated analysis of the local crop. Yes, their speed figures are low. They have to be low, thanks largely to altered riding styles brought about by the new surface.

This winter at Santa Anita, two-turn races repeatedly unfold at an agonizingly slow pace. Jockeys are reluctant to "go for it," and you really cannot blame them. While the bias that compromises two-turn speed might be less blatant than perceived, there is no doubt that Santa Anita's synthetic surface does not carry speed as far as the old paved-highway dirt tracks.

The new surface and new riding style has radically altered how races unfold on the main track. Whereas main-track races were once run fast early and slow late, the pace scenario has flip-flopped to slow early and fast late.

Synthetic is the new turf. Apparently, turf is the new dirt, because this winter speed still carries on grass.

So when the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby is run Saturday, one wonders if the 1 1/8-mile race will unfold similarly to other recent two-turn routes. Most are phony.

Instead of riding aggressively and ripping out the heart of their rivals, jockeys now take hold and back it down to a crawl. Bob Black Jack set a world record when he ran six furlongs in 1:06.53, but when he stretched out to two turns in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes he went the first six furlongs in 1:13.02.

El Gato Malo did the same thing. He won a six-furlong maiden race last fall racing six furlongs in 1:09.19, but when he had the chance to go on the offensive in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, his jockey took hold and rated him behind a six-furlong pace of 1:14.35.

Even the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, way back on Feb. 2, was weird. That race was run before the Pro-Ride refurbishment of the main track, when times were still quick. But six furlongs in a slow 1:11.41 rendered inconsequential the modest clocking and 93 Beyer Speed Figure of the winner, Crown of Thorns.

Blame it on synthetic, or blame it on the trend established in the very first route stakes of the meet. That was the wickedly fast Grade 3 San Rafael on Jan. 12, a mile race that struck fear into riders. The six-furlong fraction in that race was 1:07.90. The front-runners, as expected, collapsed.

Under normal circumstances, the Santa Anita Derby would offer straightforward assessment. Under normal circumstances, Bob Black Jack would have a legitimate chance to race wire to wire under new jockey Richard Migliore.

However, Bob Black Jack entered the Santa Anita Derby only as a backup. Trainer Jim Kasparoff preferred to run Bob Black Jack on dirt in the Arkansas Derby - "I want to get him off this track," he said, referring to Santa Anita. But when it appeared that Bob Black Jack might not draw into the race in Arkansas, Kasparoff stayed home. No thanks.

Polonius wired grass horses in the Pasadena Stakes last time, winning by four lengths. He jumps into the deep end Saturday, his first try on the main track. Victor Espinoza has worked him on the synthetic and expressed the sentiments of skeptical handicappers.

"The way he works on [synthetic], he seems to like it, but a race is different," Espinoza said.

Neither Bob Black Jack nor Polonius "figure" to win the Santa Anita Derby. Yet the mere presence of those two need-the-lead front-runners suggests that the Santa Anita Derby, unlike other route stakes this winter, might actually unfold with legitimate fractions.

The scenario would suit 2-1 favorite Colonel John, the most likely winner. The low speed figure he earned last time (86 Beyer) was largely the product of a walking pace. Go ahead and knock him, but he ran faster numbers last fall and should improve second start back.

One interesting aspect of the California 3-year-old crop is that despite modest figures and injuries, form has held. While subsequently sidelined Into Mischief paid $29.60 in the CashCall Futurity last year, 7 of the last 8 winners of graded stakes for the local 3-year-old crop returned $7.80 or less.

While the formful trend is another reason to prefer Colonel John, there is an appealing longshot. Coast Guard was working like a bomb last summer and finished a good second in his debut at Del Mar.

He came out of the race with a problematic foot abscess.

"It took us a long time to get him over it," trainer David Hofmans said, explaining why Coast Guard was out from July to December.

But since returning to the races Dec. 1, Coast Guard has improved. Runner-up in a maiden sprint, he stretched out and wired maidens, then finished second behind well-regarded (and since injured) Crown of Thorns in the Robert B. Lewis.

That runner-up finish is the race Hofmans and owner John Amerman are banking on.

"If you go by that race, he would be 5-1" Saturday, Hofmans said.

Coast Guard, however, shipped to Bay Meadows and finished nowhere as the 2.80-1 favorite in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby. According to Hofmans, he did not get hold of the Bay Meadows dirt track, but has worked well since returning home.

"He's doing better than ever," Hofmans said.

"He's a very tall horse, and he's starting to add a body and a mind."

The attractive son of Stormy Atlantic raced greenly his first two starts at the meet, but added blinkers two back and ran straight and true.

If the Santa Anita Derby unfolds with a true pace, Coast Guard should fall into a good trip just behind the speed. Joe Talamo rides Coast Guard for the first time and became acquainted with the colt Thursday during a routine gallop.

As he climbed on Coast Guard, Talamo said, "I've got the winner."

Well, maybe. But even at half the 20-1 morning line on Coast Guard, it might be worth gambling that Talamo is right.