02/05/2009 12:00AM

New mindset needed about speed


ARCADIA, Calif. - For the first time this year, the main focus of American racing turns Saturday toward Santa Anita Park, where old habits die hard.

Synthetic surfaces have forced complete revision of time-tested handicapping principles - particularly the value of early speed - that work so well on dirt.

Deep closers Stardom Bound, Shafted, and Gio Ponti are key players in three graded stakes Saturday on the Santa Anita main. In past seasons on dirt, a skeptical California player could scoff at their styles, and instead find a speed horse on which to gamble.

"When it was dirt, you could go 22, 45, and still be there," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Stardom Bound.

Not any more. Kamikaze speed does not carry on Pro-Ride, especially in route races such as the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, in which Stardom Bound will makes her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies here. Luckily for Frankel, the surface benefits the champion filly.

Stardom Bound comes from the clouds, and as Frankel said, "There is plenty of speed, especially going one mile."

Pro-Ride does not preclude victory by front-runners - the pacesetter has won 25 percent of main-track route races this winter. But there has been a shift in the type of speed that wins. On dirt, the survivor of a pace duel could still hold. But in a contested pace scenario on Pro-Ride, speed wilts.

"I don't think you can duel on synthetic," trainer Ron Ellis said. "If you duel, you are done at the quarter pole."

It is a key factor in the Las Virgenes, because the Ellis-trained Navigator otherwise would pose a bigger threat. Navigator might beat Stardom Bound anyway, but the duel Ellis fears seems likely because of her front-running style and the presence of sprinter Pinkarella.

"If she wasn't in there, I'd say we have a good shot to beat [Stardom Bound]," Ellis said. "But I wouldn't call [Navigator] rate-able. She'll get there, but she's not there yet."

If a contested pace in the Las Virgenes (race 6) sets it up for Stardom Bound, some might predict a similar scenario when Frankel-trained Brother Keith tries to wire the field in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis (race 8).

There is no secret strategy.

"I tipped my mitt when I named Tyler Baze," Frankel said, referring to the front-end jockey. But there is a big difference between the likely duel in the Las Virgenes, and the possibly uncontested lead Brother Keith could enjoy in the Lewis.

On paper, Brother Keith is the controlling speed. If left alone, he could be long gone.

It is never that easy. Brother Keith is quick. He pressed a 45.60-second opening half winning his sprint debut last fall at Churchill Downs. But he might be too fast for his own good.

"How do you know he can't go slow?" Frankel countered. No one does. The only certainty is Brother Keith will show the way.

On dirt, he might be gone. But closing fractions, once inconsequential on the main track in California, have now become as important as early fractions in Pro-Ride routes.

And no 3-year-old this winter has closed faster than Shafted did Jan. 2. A son of Mineshaft, he got squeezed at the break and dropped next to last while a slow pace unfolded up front. Shafted, favored to win the first-level allowance, appeared in trouble.

But deep closers are never in trouble on Pro-Ride, and Shafted uncorked a final five-sixteenths in a quick 29.60 to win going away.

The question Saturday is not whether Shafted is fast enough to win. His closing fraction suggests he is. Rather, the issue is whether he has sufficient class to defeat Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge, one-two finishers in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity.

Bob Baffert trains Pioneerof the Nile and disagrees with the notion the colt received higher accolades for his Futurity than is fitting for a colt that earned a Beyer Figure of only 86.

"I know when I have a good horse, it's all about presence," Baffert said. "Midnight Lute had a presence. Indian Blessing has a presence. The good ones they have presence, and [Pioneerof the Nile] is a good one."

Still, it is tough to re-form old ideas. In the CashCall Futurity, the field bunched and the figure was low. On dirt, it would be accurate to say it was a bad group of horses. But that cynical analysis is not necessarily true on synthetic, according to Baffert. He does not consider a bunched-up field a sign of a bad race on synthetic.

"On dirt, good horses will separate," Baffert said. "On this, they don't separate. And you have to ride them totally different. It's half turf racing, and half dirt racing."

It can be 100 percent confusing for handicappers whose basis was in speed- and pace-figure analysis.

Which is why the most probable winner on the Saturday card is an easy call.

In the Grade 2 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds (race 9), Cowboy Cal enters with much in his favor. He beat older last time in a Grade 2 and is dropping into an age-restricted stakes.

He has tactical speed, and he also can finish. Cowboy Cal has a race over the track, he fires every start, and might simply be the best horse in the field.

The most dangerous opponent for Cowboy Cal is the late-running Gio Ponti. If Gio Ponti unleashes another of his wicked stretch runs that have been so effective, the Strub might be won in the same fashion as so many other main-track routes this meet.

This season on Pro-Ride, handicappers must devalue front-runners and upgrade late-runners. That would be a whole lot easier except for longstanding practices from speed-friendly dirt tracks.

This winter at Santa Anita, the challenge has been to form new habits, which cannot happen until one breaks the old.