04/14/2004 11:00PM

Lexington road leads through California


I have friends and a brother who reside in California, and nearly all of them share the same opinion: Every other state pales in comparison to theirs.

Hoping to understand this view better, I once asked a buddy from Los Angeles if he had ever been east, and he answered "Vegas." I suppose there isn't much need to travel when you have the Pacific Ocean, sunny skies, and racetracks like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar within a short drive.

At least California-based horses make trips out of town. That is welcome news, since their best horses are quite often the best in the land.

Just watch the dominance of California shippers in the coming weeks. Or better yet, cash in on the angle in Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

Boomzeeboom and Quintons Gold Rush, a pair of Southern California-based horses, will be part of a full field of runners from different regions in the Lexington. While the competition is legitimate, the race runs through them.

Quintons Gold Rush is my choice to win for primarily one reason: He ran a close fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

Santa Anita Derby also-rans have a favorable history in the Lexington, winning three of the past six runnings. Classic Cat won the 1999 Lexington after a fifth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, Charismatic won in 2000 after running fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, and Proud Citizen won the 2002 Lexington after finishing seventh in the Santa Anita Derby.

Charismatic later won the Derby and Preakness, and Proud Citizen ran second to War Emblem in the 2002 Derby.

What makes the Santa Anita Derby such a key race, year after year? It is a quality Grade 1. Typically the best of the West remain in California for the Santa Anita Derby, with Lion Heart, who this year left town to run in the Blue Grass, one of the few exceptions. So a horse who runs fourth or fifth in a race like the Santa Anita Derby is running a deceptively good race.

Beyond this favorable trend, Quintons Gold Rush has other things to like. Although he has won just once in four starts, he has kept tough company.

Even before being tested in stakes, he debuted with a second to the eventual San Felipe winner Preachinatthebar, and followed that race with a maiden win over the eventual Louisiana Derby winner Wimbleton.

Despite being off the board in his two stakes attempts, he ran well. He raced wide chasing a fast pace when he finished fourth in the San Rafael behind Imperialism and Lion Heart, and he held the lead until the eighth pole in the Santa Anita Derby, when he was beaten three lengths.

In terms of Beyer Speed Figures, he does not own the best numbers, but his figures are solid. He earned a 93 in his maiden win, came back with a 93 in the San Rafael, and recently earned a 98 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Classic Cat, Charismatic, and Proud Citizen did not run as quickly when they were beaten in the Santa Anita Derby, earning Beyer Figures of 83, 94, and 81, respectively. But facing easier in the Lexington, they leaped forward with Beyers of 108, 108, and 95.

My chief concern with Quintons Gold Rush is simply that he faces a group of talented horses, including some who have a front-running style similar to his own. A win will not come easily.

But given his strengths, and the fact that he likely needs a first- or second-place finish to gain entry into an oversubscribed Kentucky Derby, he seems a good bet under Jerry Bailey. It doesn't hurt, either, that Bailey and the horse's new trainer, Steve Asmussen, have combined to win 35 percent of their races together since 2002.

As for the others, Boomzeeboom merits respect on the basis of his last two victories, both of which earned him triple-digit Beyers. He earned a Beyer of 106 for his maiden win and followed that with a 102 Beyer in a win over Kentucky Derby-bound Minister Eric. With the average winning Beyer in the Lexington over the past 10 years being a 103, he looms an obvious force on Beyers.

Turning away from the California runners, Song of the Sword and Suave are both moderately appealing following two-three finishes in a quick Illinois Derby. Song of the Sword made a bold run to grab second behind victorious Pollard's Vision, while Suave was a brave third after getting shuffled back heading into the clubhouse turn.