04/26/2009 11:00PM

Join in the Dance ensures hot pace


NEW YORK - From the moment the news broke last Friday, Quality Road's new quarter crack threatened to affect this Saturday's Kentucky Derby beyond the potential loss of the colt - who figured to be no worse than the second choice, and perhaps the favorite.

If any one of the 20 horses on the right side of the graded earnings line - and it didn't have to be Quality Road - was not entered in the Derby, then Join in the Dance would be first in line to crack the starting field. Indeed, with Monday's unfortunate announcement that Quality Road's quarter crack got the best of him, Join in the Dance was in the field, which profoundly changes the complexion of this race.

That isn't because Join in the Dance is a prime contender or because he is a hidden gem.

Frankly, so far he's been ordinary at best. Join in the Dance sports just a maiden win from eight starts. His best race by far was his narrowly beaten second two starts back after leading late in the low-rated Tampa Bay Derby. That near miss from Join in the Dance was a big surprise, underscored by his odds of 35-1, and it was back to Earth for him in his last start, a tired fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes.

But Join in the Dance has early speed, the kind of early speed the others in the Derby don't have. Twice last summer at Saratoga, Join in the Dance shaded 22 seconds for the opening quarter-mile setting the pace. Join in the Dance has the kind of suicidal speed that many have come to expect in the Kentucky Derby, even if that isn't always the case.

Without Join in the Dance, the pace scenario Saturday looked far more controlled than what you usually see. Regal Ransom figured to go to the lead, but mainly by default. Although Regal Ransom set most of the pace when he won the UAE Derby in his last start, the pace didn't seem that fast, and he's not a need-the-lead type.

Quality Road, as he did when he won the Florida Derby and the Fountain of Youth before that, figured to prompt the front-runner along with I Want Revenge. Don't forget, I Want Revenge prompted Mr. Fantasy's pace when he won the Gotham (and didn't Mr. Fantasy make I Want Revenge look good winning Saturday's Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in his first start since). But as he demonstrated in his remarkable Wood Memorial win, I Want Revenge doesn't need perfect early position.

Papa Clem, the Arkansas Derby winner, has the early foot to race in the vicinity of that leader-prompting group. Friesan Fire, the Louisiana Derby winner, would be stalking from close range along with, perhaps, Desert Party, the more highly regarded Dubai shipper, and Square Eddie, if he comes out of the gate, which he doesn't always do.

All of these horses are not only content in these styles, they also are very tractable. So if Regal Ransom wanted to back it down some in front, then Quality Road, I Want Revenge, and the stalking group right in behind them probably would have let him do so. That would not have been great news for Dunkirk, and it would have been bad news for Pioneerof the Nile. At least Dunkirk ran big against an adverse pace setup and a speed-favoring track when second in the Florida Derby, and since that was only his third career start, he has lots of room to improve.

Pioneerof the Nile, whose fans have insisted he will improve on dirt and with a pace to run at in the Derby, might prove to love dirt. But without sufficient pace to flatter his late run, Pioneerof the Nile might not have been able to improve enough. And he simply hasn't run as fast yet as the other top contenders.

That, however, has changed now. Desert Party and the other pace players will all be chasing Join in the Dance. And while Join in the Dance might have little to recommend him beyond early speed, it's hard picturing the jockeys on the other pace players being gutsy enough to let him open up a six- or eight-length lead. The other pace players are simply going to have to work harder early now.

All of which leads to another factor involving Join in the Dance: He's trained by Todd Pletcher, who also trains the stone-cold closer Dunkirk. Dunkirk has shown so much in his brief career that few would be surprised if he becomes the first in 127 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. Things broke right for Pletcher when Dunkirk's graded earnings proved enough to get into the Derby, and things might have broken right for him again Monday.

Join in the Dance and Dunkirk have different owners, so it might not be politically correct to suggest that he could act as a rabbit for Dunkirk. But there is no doubt that Dunkirk's job (and Pioneerof the Nile's, too) has been made significantly easier with the kind of hot pace to rally into that Join in the Dance will provide.