04/10/2008 12:00AM

Pletcher's Blue Grass pair playable


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Keeneland has always been a challenging meet to handicap, particularly in spring, when horses converge there from many different tracks. Horses from Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, and Turfway regularly compete at Keeneland in the spring - along with invaders from Oaklawn Park, Aqueduct, and Santa Anita.

Determining the best horse or, rather, the best horse to back at the price, is no easy task - because it is difficult to evaluate horses that have rarely or ever faced one another. And even if they have run head to head, perhaps they have not done so over a synthetic surface, like the Polytrack at Keeneland.

It makes for a lot of guesswork, and Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes, the signature race of the Keeneland spring meeting, illustrates the point.

Pyro, Cool Coal Man, and Big Truck, three of the race favorites, have raced exclusively on dirt, and never against one another; Cowboy Cal has flashed brilliance on turf, but is untested over a synthetic surface; Monba, Medjool, Miner's Charm, and Halo Najib have run well on synthetic tracks, but for the most part not against the caliber of opposition they face Saturday; and late-running Visionaire is also tough to gauge, having won the Gotham in the fog - a race in which the video caught him in the picture for the perhaps the first and last furlong of the race.

So what's a bettor to do? Based on what I have seen at Keeneland this meet, in which favorites have won only 21 percent of the Polytrack races through Thursday's card - it seems best to shoot for a price.

Despite Pyro's accomplishments and eye-catching turn of foot - often the key to winning a race over Polytrack - he still is unraced on the surface. That makes him a question mark, and if he sticks to his morning line price of even money, he looks like a clear underlay, despite his immense talent.

Let's not forget that eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, who also had a brilliant turn of foot on dirt, was beaten a nose in this race last year by Dominican, a horse most of us have long since forgotten.

My choice is 15-1 Monba, who has established himself as a quality synthetic-track performer, just as Dominican had shown prior to the Blue Grass last year.

Granted, Monba's last race - a last-place finish in the Fountain of Youth - was dreadful, but he had excuses. According to trainer Todd Pletcher, Monba sustained a gash on his right rear leg after being stepped on while being bumped into the first turn. Since that race, he has also had throat surgery.

Monba is a legitimate contender. He won his first two starts last year, and his debut came over Polytrack at Keeneland. He ended the year with a hard-charging fourth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, finishing a length behind Colonel John, recent winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Monba outran some nice colts, such as Sierra Sunset, winner of the Grade 2 Rebel, and Eaton's Gift, who won the Grade 2 Swale at Gulfstream in February.

A son of Maria's Mon, whose runners have excellent statistics on all-weather surfaces, Monba shows a fast April 6 work over Keeneland's Polytrack, a half-mile drill in 47.20 seconds, hinting of a strong race to come. For a colt known for working slowly - he was nearly 10-1 off slow works when he won his debut - a 47 and change work is a flashy time.

If Pletcher doesn't win the Blue Grass with Monba, he might do so with Cowboy Cal. Arguably the best 3-year-old turf horse in Florida this past winter, he has a pedigree for synthetic success. Cowboy Cal is a son of Giant's Causeway, who, according to Bloodstock Research Information Services, ranks third among North American sires based on his progeny's earnings on all-weather tracks this year.

Cowboy Cal rates as my second selection with Pyro my third pick.

Commonwealth: Rebellion offers value

A race earlier on Keeneland's card, in the Commonwealth, I will support another proven Polytrack performer who should be a price. At 6-1 on the morning line, Rebellion is unraced this year but takes a class drop, coming off an eighth-place finish in the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup Mile.

Besides facing easier, Rebellion should appreciate being cut back in distance to seven furlongs, a distance at which he won the Steinlen on turf at Belmont last year.

It was his following race that gives me reason to like him Saturday. Racing in the six-furlong Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland last fall, Rebellion rallied for second, earning a career-best 97 Beyer.

He races for trainer Graham Motion, who has great numbers with horses racing on synthetic surfaces and whose comebacking runners at Keeneland tend to be cranked. Over the past five years, Motion is 4 for 11 with horses racing at Keeneland off 61 to 180 days of rest.