04/07/2008 12:00AM

Only Colonel John impresses


NEW YORK - There is no question that War Pass was much the best as the runner-up in Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. After missing his break a bit, War Pass was goaded into setting a fast pace by a rabbit, Inner Light, who wound up last, beaten 42 lengths. The half-mile and three-quarter-mile fractions were more than two seconds faster than solid older horses went in the Excelsior Handicap the race before.

But as courageous as War Pass was in defeat, it is another matter entirely whether he can be effective at 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby. The same goes for Tale of Ekati, who won the Wood by a half-length, and Court Vision, who finished another 1o1/4 lengths back in third.

Given the fast early pace, it was to be expected that the field would come home fairly slow. But even considering Aqueduct's dull, drying-out main track - another reason to credit War Pass for getting so close to victory after putting up the fast pace - no one could have been prepared for a final three-eighths of a mile run in an interminable 40.85 seconds. At least War Pass, whose distance ability has always been in question, ran his heart out. Tale of Ekati needed all day to capitalize on the perfect trip he got while the overrated Court Vision, whose rabbit had such an impact on the outcome, couldn't even do that.

One other note: Shame on Keeneland for running the Grade 1 Ashland at the same time as the Wood. Racing's bread and butter right now is the road to the Kentucky Derby. Couldn't Keeneland have delayed the Ashland for two minutes so as not to interfere with a major Derby prep featuring last year's champion 2-year-old?

Tale of Ekati received a pedestrian Beyer Speed Figure of only 93, and the winning Beyer of 95 in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby wasn't much better. But it's amazing how much of a different feel Colonel John's Santa Anita Derby victory had to it.

Granted, Colonel John was running down Bob Black Jack, an opponent who is clearly talented but likely distance challenged. But Colonel John was impressive visually, closing with huge strides, gaining more than six lengths in a final three-eighths run in 36.52 seconds. He looks like he will absolutely love the Derby distance, and he seems certain to be no worse than third choice in the Derby behind Big Brown and Pyro no matter what happens this Saturday in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, and even though he has yet to run on dirt.

There's no other way to put it. Saturday's Illinois Derby at Hawthorne was a weird race. It was like a procession, with horses going around the track with hardly a change of position. Recapturetheglory, who had but a maiden win from five starts to his credit, lulled the field to sleep setting a pace that amounted to steady eighths of a mile in 12 seconds and was the fourth straight front-running winner on the card.

The big disappointment was Denis of Cork, who probably regressed even more than his sheet-oriented management anticipated and finished an empty fifth in his first career defeat. Now, Denis of Cork - like El Gato Malo, who finished fifth in the Santa Anita Derby after being surprisingly favored over Colonel John - is doubtful of making the topo20 in graded earnings, which determine the Kentucky Derby field. Their rivals still can run not only in the $1 million Arkansas Derby and $750,000 Blue Grass, but also in the $325,000 Lexington as well.

Here is a look at the weekend's other important stakes races by division.

Older females

There was only one really important event for this division, but man, the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park was something else, thanks to a brilliant performance by the undefeated Zenyatta. In her first start outside of California, and first outing on dirt, Zenyatta shot right to the top of her division. And that is because Zenyatta blew past reigning divisional champion Ginger Punch, the 2-5 favorite, and everyone else like they were tethered to the eighth pole, running off to score in very compelling fashion.

Older males

Oaklawn made a valiant attempt to upstage the big Triple Crown preps Saturday with a pair of terrific races. Not long after Zenyatta wowed everyone in the Apple Blossom, Tiago and Heatseeker put on a tremendous show in the Oaklawn Handicap, engaging in a stretch battle that carried them 6 1/2 lengths clear of the third finisher. Tiago, a stablemate of Zenyatta's, won the photo. But Heatseeker, who finished four lengths ahead of Tiago when he won last month's Santa Anita Handicap, lost no stature in defeat as he had the wider trip.

Three-year-old fillies

It would seem after finishing a flat third and fifth, respectively, in Saturday's Ashland, any clamor for Proud Spell or Country Star trying colts in the Derby has been extinguished. Proud Spell's loss wasn't too alarming. It was her first try on a synthetic track, a surface she might not have liked and really won't have to race on again until possibly the Breeders' Cup. Country Star, on the other hand, won two Grade 1 races from as many starts on synthetic, so her fans have to hope she was simply in need of her first start this year.

The other noteworthy race for this division over the weekend was Sunday's Fantasy at Oaklawn, in which Eight Belles stretched her win streak to four to inch ever closer to the top of her crop. Eight Belles was determined, finally getting the best of a stubborn Alina, who has improved dramatically since recently moving into Steve Asmussen's barn. As a side note, Eight Belles was the only winning favorite in the seven races discussed here.