05/08/2008 11:00PM

McLaughlin has able replacement

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PHOENIX - I knew many months ago trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was going to win this year's Met Mile. His Daaher won the Cigar Mile last fall and would take this year's Met Mile.

Oops.

Let me rephrase that. Daaher has since been retired, but in this strange game McLaughlin still looks well positioned to take the Met Mile later this month with Divine Park, recent impressive winner of the one-mile Westchester Handicap on Belmont Park's opening-day card on April 30.

It's no surprise that Divine Park, a son of Chester House, is developing into a top one-turn horse. After all, slightly more than a year ago he was superb winning the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct, to start his career 3 for 3. He was sidelined, however, until the winter, when he shipped west for Santa Anita's Grade 1 Malibu. That was one tough spot for a comeback. He was also being asked to ship, run off the layoff, and try Cushion Track for the first time. Divine Park had run very well - he won in fact - on Keeneland's Polytrack in his second career start, so McLaughlin had reason to be optimistic about the synthetic surface.

But the chore proved too much. Divine Park stalked, while very wide, and tired in the lane to be ninth. He returned east, was freshened, and went to Laurel's Grade 2 General George on Feb. 18. He threw a fit in the gate, however, and broke through before the start. When the race began, he again stalked and again fell apart.

McLaughlin, however, had reason to believe those two starts were aberrations. He returned to Aqueduct's inner track March 28 and got a good confidence-builder into his 4-year-old. Divine Park dueled early in a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer and drew off to win with ease. It was just what the doctor ordered, as evidenced by his next start, his breakout Westchester win, where he earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure.

What makes the Westchester look even better was the way he did it. Divine Park isn't some speed-crazy runner. Oh, he has speed, but as he showed in the Westchester, he can sit off a fast pace and still blast home. He went from third to a clear lead in a matter of strides turning for home in the Westchester and was never threatened, this while facing a couple of nice horses in Grasshopper and Sightseeing.

Daaher is gone. War Pass would have been a logical Met Mile candidate, but he's on the bench. Midnight Lute's face is on the side of a milk carton, since he hasn't run since last fall's Cigar Mile and hasn't worked since late March. And the possibility of a sizzling, contested pace could set things up perfectly for Divine Park. After all, unbeaten Bustin Stones and rockets Commentator and Monterey Jazz all pretty much have one way to go. Surf Cat, whose style would likely play well, is more likely to stay in Southern California.

So as you can see, things look promising again for McLaughlin, who likely was licking his chops at the prospect of Daaher in the Met Mile. But another horse may get him a similar result.

Time to change Derby predispositions

One thing we must do as handicappers is act, not react. It's too easy to fall into the "rhythmic gallop" of handicapping, where you look at the same things, the same trends you have been relying on over the years, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. We also fall into a trap of trying to be "first." Pyro may turn out to be a top member of his class, but it seems downright silly now that a couple of months ago the press was littered with claims that his Risen Star win at Fair Grounds was one of the "greatest" Derby prep performances ever. It was as if many writers were trying to be the first to declare him the goods.

But as we can see, things change. Form changes. The advent of synthetic tracks has us re-evaluating how we evaluate the Derby preps. Yes, Southern California standout Colonel John didn't threaten, but it had nothing to do with the move to dirt - he got obliterated at the start, made a big midrace move, and then fell apart after using all his fuel for that. Even if he had had a perfect trip and gone through the roof, he wasn't going to beat Big Brown anyway.

And now Big Brown has done something even Curlin could not do - win the Derby off fewer than four career starts, only the second ever to do so (Regret, in 1915, was the other). He's also the second straight horse to win the Derby off just two preps as a 3-year-old, something previously considered nearly impossible. That makes it 3 for the last 60 to win the Derby off just two 3-year-old preps (Sunny's Halo, Street Sense, and Big Brown). Remember, too, that if Barbaro's Tropical Park Derby win had come 24 hours earlier - on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1 - it would be three straight Derby winners who won off just two preps at 3.

Barbaro also dispelled the notion that you couldn't win the Derby coming off more than a four-week layoff (he did it off five weeks).

This is just to say, it's not your daddy's Derby handicapping any longer, and really that's not such a bad thing, either.