04/14/2002 11:00PM

For now, Royal Gem's all turf

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In the end, Bobby Frankel still might consider the Kentucky Derby for Royal Gem. After all, with two spectacular come-from-behind wins in as many starts, Royal Gem has accomplished more than some other horses whose connections have been overcome by Derby fever.

But realizing that Royal Gem might be severely compromised by a Keeneland main surface that continues to favor speed and/or inside-running horses, Frankel decided to forgo the upcoming Lexington Stakes by entering Royal Gem as the horse to beat in the $100,000 Forerunner Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile turf race that highlights the Wednesday card.

Alex Solis will ride Royal Gem in the 1 1/8-mile Forerunner, which drew a field of seven 3-year-olds. Mystic Salse, a sharp recent second in the Caltech Stakes at Gulfstream, is the likely second choice with Pat Day riding.

Royal Gem, by the noted grass sire Royal Academy, won at first asking in February, then captured a minor stakes in March, both at Santa Anita. Both times, he lagged far behind before unleashing torrid runs that carried him to victory. With the Forerunner representing a stretchout, Royal Gem will be asked to show that his kick is effective at longer distances.

Although an all-grass prep schedule is hardly the conventional way to make the Derby, Royal Gem still figures to get far more benefit from the Forerunner than Saturday's Lexington, a 1 1/16-mile race with a considerably shorter stretch run (1 1/16-mile races at Keeneland begin and end at the sixteenth pole). With both of Royal Gem's wins having come on turf, and with his pedigree being so slanted toward grass, the colt will remain very much within his element by racing in the Forerunner.

Mystic Salse, owned and trained by Frank Mourier, has never been worse than second in four starts. After winning a maiden and allowance race at Fair Grounds, the British-bred Mystic Salse shipped to Gulfstream for his solid Caltech showing.

The other starters are A Secret Scoop, Goshin's Lad, No More Chads, Extra Check, and Red Masque.

The Forerunner once was a marginal Derby prep on the dirt before being supplanted on the Keeneland stakes schedule by the Lexington. The first Forerunner on turf was in 1986, when Manila was upset by a colt named Autobot.

Another noteworthy race on the Wednesday card is a $64,000 allowance that directly precedes the Forerunner. No Armistice and Crucible are the logical favorites.

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