04/12/2009 11:00PM

Latest preps on a lower rung


NEW YORK - It would have been unreasonable to expect the aspirants who competed in Saturday's two big Kentucky Derby preps, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, to equal, let alone top, what took place in the Derby preps the previous two Saturdays. Quality Road and Dunkirk in the Florida Derby and I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial set the bar high.

So if you went into the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby with that sort of mind-set, there was enough to keep all but the most cynical critic entertained.

For example, in the Blue Grass, General Quarters's upset victory enabled that colt to become the first member of his generation to claim significant stakes wins on both dirt and synthetic surfaces. In February, General Quarters upset the Sam F. Davis Stakes on the dirt track at Tampa Bay Downs. General Quarters did not run as well in the subsequent Tampa Bay Derby, which is a big reason why he was 14-1 on Saturday. But on Polytrack in the Blue Grass, General Quarters turned in a performance much more in line with his Sam Davis effort, scoring in clear-cut fashion. Hold Me Back lost nothing in the way of stature - he might have actually gained a little - even though he finished second in the Blue Grass as the favorite because he went so wide turning for home that it looked like he was heading to a concession stand for a bowl of burgoo.

As for the Arkansas Derby, the victory by Papa Clem was far from implausible. Papa Clem was second choice in the betting, ahead of Win Willy, who had just handed favored Old Fashioned the first defeat of his career. What was eye-opening, however, was the way Papa Clem won. Even though jockey Rafael Bejarano appeared to ask for it in the opening moments of the Arkansas Derby, the speed that was Papa Clem's calling card in all three of his previous two-turn races - including his seconds in the Louisiana Derby and Robert Lewis - just wasn't there. To Bejarano's credit, he didn't force the issue and quickly relented to Papa Clem's desire to run from off the pace. It's doubtful that even Papa Clem's most ardent admirers anticipated he would win from fifth, but that's just what he did after outgaming Old Fashioned in a terrific stretch battle.

The thing is, the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass were not run in a vacuum. Every one of us who finds his horse in the Kentucky Derby will, in one way or another, take what happened in these two races and attempt to find their proper context on the road to Louisville. And that is when the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby might fail to stand up to scrutiny.

It is common sense to question what a prep race run on a synthetic track like the Blue Grass can possibly mean for a race run on dirt like the Kentucky Derby. Sure, two years ago, Street Sense won the Derby after prepping (and losing) on Polytrack in the Blue Grass. But Street Sense was already a champion and a major stakes winner on dirt. General Quarters is neither a champion nor (with no offense to the Sam Davis Stakes) a major stakes winner on dirt. And it would be much easier to get excited about Hold Me Back's strong close into a slow pace Saturday despite having to go ridiculously wide if his fine synthetic track form wasn't in such stark contrast to an awful performance in his one attempt on dirt.

With Papa Clem, the question concerning his Arkansas Derby is obvious: How good could his performance have possibly been? Even though he gets credit for winning with a running style that was unfamiliar to him, Papa Clem was straight as a string to best an opponent in Old Fashioned who came out of the race with a career-ending knee fracture, presumably sustained during the running. Summer Bird, who went into the Arkansas Derby off just a modest maiden win that earned him a Beyer Figure of only 78, rallied from last and gained more than two lengths on Papa Clem in the final furlong to be beaten a mere 1 1/4 lengths. Neither fact figures to make you like Papa Clem if you didn't like him before the Arkansas Derby.

Some thoughts on a couple of other Keeneland stakes results:

* Seriously. How good is Forever Together?

In her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf last October, Forever Together was class personified winning Saturday's Jenny Wiley Stakes. She won under a minimal hand ride, but more impressive was the fact that Forever Together was able to produce her powerful late kick into an extremely slow pace (the early fractions in the Jenny Wiley were 25.92 seconds, 51.83, and 1:17.12 as compared with 24.35, 49.14, and 1:14.92 on the other turf route on Saturday's card). Distance doesn't matter to Forever Together. She's equally as effective at one mile as she is at 1 1/4 miles, and might be just as good going even longer. It's going to be fun watching her this year.

* Ventura might have been 2-5 in Thursday's Vinery Madison, but that didn't mean jockey Garret Gomez had to ride her like she was Ruffian against a bunch of goats. Gomez was admirably patient in the early running. If he were just a bit more patient instead of angling out sharply late on the turn to go widest of all into the stretch, Gomez would have had ample room to split horses in upper stretch, and Ventura wouldn't have lost by a head to the ground-saving Informed Decision.