04/06/2009 12:00AM

Perfect Song gets an ideal scenario

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NEW YORK - Saturday is chock-full of important stakes racing from one end of the country to the other, with three rich Kentucky Derby prep races leading the way.

At Aqueduct, the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial is the feature on a program that also includes the Grade 1, $300,000 Carter Handicap, the Grade 3, $200,000 Excelsior Stakes, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes.

At Santa Anita, the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which like the Wood has proven to be a successful springboard to the Kentucky Derby many times over, tops a card that includes three other Grade 2 events, the $200,000 Potrero Grande, the $150,000 Providencia, and the $150,000 Arcadia Handicap.

And at Hawthorne, the headliner is the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby.

There are, however, other noteworthy stakes on Saturday that are not Derby preps. Shocking, I know! Among them include the pair of $500,000 handicap events on the card at Oaklawn Park, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and the headliner on the first Saturday program of the Keeneland meet, the Grade 1, $400,000 Ashland Stakes, which will see the first start outside of Southern California by champion Stardom Bound.

Illinois Derby

Hawthorne has a reputation of being a track that can be kind to speed horses, and that seems to be especially true come Illinois Derby time. And when it specifically comes to the Illinois Derby, speed, it seems, is king.

The Illinois Derby was moved to Hawthorne from Sportsman's Park in 2003, when Ten Most Wanted came from well off the pace to win this Derby prep. But since then, you have needed a search party to find closers in this event. Pollard's Vision led at every call when he won in 2004. Greeley's Galaxy, in 2005, and Sweetnorthernsaint the following year won after racing close to the early lead. And the last two Illinois Derby winners, Cowtown Cat in 2007 and Recapturetheglory last year, both led at every call.

So, until I see otherwise in this race, I'm standing against stalkers and closers like Musket Man, Giant Oak, and Nowhere to Hide, who also happen to be the three favorites on the morning line. But even putting history aside, taking a shot against these three is not hard to do. With Lord Justice out of the equation, since he is expected to start in the Wood Memorial instead, there is very little early speed in this race. And Perfect Song, who does have early speed, is in perfect position to capitalize.

Perfect Song has started only three times and will be making his stakes debut Saturday. But strong wins in his two outings on dirt, the surface he will run on in this spot, suggest he is good enough to cash in on the pace advantage he owns. That seems particularly true of his win at Laurel last time out. Granted, Perfect Song was 2-5, and beat only three opponents. But the way he spread-eagled his field (there was almost 18 lengths between the second and third finisher, and just over 15 additional lengths back to the fourth finisher) says that this was a strongly run race. In fact, the Beyer Speed Figure of 91 that Perfect Song earned is the best last-out Beyer Figure in this field. Moreover, Perfect Song is bred to be only more effective with the added distance he gets here.

As for the other two big Derby preps Saturday, they look chalky to me. I believe I Want Revenge would have to bounce to the moon not to win the Wood as the strong favorite, and I'm not expecting him to bounce significantly. But if he does regress in a big way, the only one I can see beating him is second choice Imperial Council. As for the Santa Anita Derby, I was impressed with how The Pamplemousse ran hard from start to finish winning the Sham, and I don't think he requires the early lead to be as effective, which is key because he must deal with a rabbit this time in Z Day.

Excelsior Stakes

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of early speed in this race, either. That could compromise the streaking closer Barrier Reef, who I was inclined to go against anyway at low odds because he's off Aqueduct's inner track, and the inner track is the only surface he has ever won on.

I like Cool Coal Man, who showed sprint speed when he won his seasonal debut at Gulfstream two starts back, who ran a fast second quarter when he was the beaten favorite in the Gulfstream Park Handicap last time out, and who showed when he won last year's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth that he has the quality to win races like this. Yes, I know that True Resurgence, who will break just inside of Cool Coal Man, has a touch of early foot. But with speed rider Chuck Lopez named to ride Cool Coal Man, I expect him to be sent right to the front.

Arcadia Handicap

Desert Code, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner, has won as many races on Santa Anita turf as the rest of this field combined. But as accomplished as Desert Code is, he's not an appealing proposition at short odds going a longer distance than he has been running.

Madeo is the play. Madeo put a forgettable outing in the San Fernando two starts back behind him with a strong score last time out that was reminiscent of his win in the Del Mar Derby and his unlucky second in the Oak Tree Derby last year. In his most recent win, Madeo put in a powerful late run, getting his final quarter-mile, according to Formulator Web, in 22.85 seconds. And since that was Madeo's first legitimate outing since late November, he has a right to improve on it.