02/11/2010 12:00AM

Oaklawn roundup

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Will he rate?

It's a question horseplayers regularly debate, but one that is magnified this time of year. 'Tis the season of Kentucky Derby preps, when many 3-year-olds are asked to stretch out in distance while stepping up in class. Those who respond to their riders often have the best chance for success, and identifying those horses before they establish such form can make for a lucrative spring for handicappers.

In Monday's Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn, Dryfly is one of several probables who will spark the rate debate. He comes into the one-mile race off consecutive wire-to-wire wins, one in a seven-furlong allowance at Churchill Downs on Nov. 1 and the other in the $100,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn on Jan. 18.

But since the Smarty Jones, trainer Lynn Whiting has orchestrated some lessons in rating for Dryfly. The latest was Sunday, when the horse breezed five furlongs in 1:01.60 under regular rider Calvin Borel.

"I put a horse in front of him, and we took him back off that horse, four, five lengths early," Whiting said. "We let him settle back there, and at the quarter pole just eased him out around [the workmate]. Didn't ask him for anything. Calvin really never moved his hands on him until inside the eighth pole, and he came the last eighth in 11 and 4, galloped out in 1:15."

Whiting said that was what he wanted to see off Dryfly's front-running win in the Smarty Jones.

"We know he has that dimension," Whiting said. "But somewhere along the way he's going to meet some other quick horses, where it's not going to be in your best interest to be locked in a speed duel, having a one-dimensional horse. You have to be on the engine. I just want to be ready for that eventuality when it arises.

"The two breezes I've had since the Southwest, he's handled it very well," he said. "He's taken to it as good as I can ask him to."

But that's just practice, said Whiting.

"Now the afternoon will be another test, because it's under game conditions," he said. "You've got a nerve factor, and other jocks are whipping and [driving] and chirping at their horses. He needs to remember his lessons."

For some horses, the foundation for rating in a race is laid early on. Genetics play a role. Was the horse's sire too keen in his races, or was his speed able to be rationed? What was the mental makeup of his dam? Was she composed as a racehorse? Another factor is the initial training a horse receives. Is he bridle-wise? Then there is his present training, and the bond he has with his rider, all of which seems to be working for Dryfly.

Whiting said the horse is smart and gets along well with Borel, who has won two of the last three runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

"Calvin seems to have him eating out of his hands," Whiting said. "He can do anything he wants to do with him. That's a great asset.

"We'll see what the cast is going to be like Monday, and that will dictate the strategy," he said. "But it looks like we have options."

ON THE STAKES DOCKET

There may be some California speed invading for the Southwest, the first graded prep on the road to the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert is expected to send Conveyance, the front-running winner of the at Santa Anita. From Florida, trainer Todd Pletcher has a sprint-to-route prospect for the Southwest in Mission Impazible.

This weekend's stakes action will also include the $75,000 Martha Washington on Saturday. A one-mile race for 3-year-old fillies, the Martha Washington was the starting point for Rachel Alexandra's Horse of the Year campaign in 2009. A large field is expected for the renewal, including possible shippers from Florida and California. The Martha Washington is the first prep for the Grade 2, $300,000 Fantasy here April 2.

The Southwest and Martha Washington will end at the sixteenth pole, as do all one-mile races at Oaklawn.

WHO'S HOT

Scott Becker, who is in his first Oaklawn meet as a head trainer, sent out two notable double-digit winners last weekend. The first came in with Racing Bran, who wired the field and paid $24.60. A day later, first-time starter Zippy Wager scored and paid $35. Both horses race for William Stiritz, the defending leading owner at Oaklawn.

Becker was the Oaklawn-based assistant to trainer Terry Gestes last meet and went out on his own later in the year. Palanka City, a Grade 3-winning sprinter, is one of the horses Becker has on hand here. Becker said she is being pointed for the $60,000 Spring Fever on Feb. 20.

TALES FROM THE TRACK

Whiting might be chowing down on some mushrooms before he runs Dryfly in the Southwest. He said the late Cal Partee, who raced Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee, would never eat them because the owner of a prominent horse in the 1940s died from consuming a poisonous one. But Partee's policy changed one Friday night in 1992, said Whiting.

"We were having dinner the night before the Kentucky Derby, and - me being the jokester that I am, feeling good about everything - I said, 'Cal, I had a dream last night. I dreamed that you ate mushrooms and Lil E. Tee won the Derby.' He said, 'Waiter, bring us an order of mushrooms.' And we all ate mushrooms."

Less than 24 hours later, Whiting saddled Lil E. Tee to a 16-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby. Then it was on to the Preakness, and another dinner out the night before the big race. Crabs were the main dish, and when Partee asked for a round of mushrooms, he was informed they were not served at the restaurant. The next day, Lil E. Tee ran fifth in the Preakness.

"And that was the only race he was ever off the board!" said Whiting.

HORSES TO WATCH

Prom Shoes

Trainer: Jinks Fires

Last race: Feb. 6, 9th

Finish: 3rd by 4 1/2

He had no pace help in the $100,000 Essex Handicap, in which he closed from last to finish third to a winner who was loose through six furlongs in 1:14.80. The race was also his first in eight months, one of many reasons he should move forward in his next start. It could come in the Grade 3, $150,000 Razorback Handicap here March 6.

Slam Cat

Trainer: Tim Ritchey

Last race: Feb. 5, 10th

Finish: 2nd by a neck

Showed courage in her career debut, setting the pace over a tiring track and fighting on along the rail when challenged in a maiden special weight sprint for 3-year-old fillies. She had posted some sharp works leading up to the race and seems like a runner with a future.

Bootless

Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

Last race: Feb. 7, 6th

Finish: 5th by 3 1/4

She was not intimidated when an older rival came over on her during the stretch run of a $30,000 conditioned claiming sprint. She held her ground along the rail after setting much of the race's pace. The horse who came over on her had her number taken down. Bootless is a 3-year-old who was making her first start against winners.