05/25/2005 11:00PM

Prep races that failed to prepare

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Though normalcy has returned to the 3-year-old division thanks to Afleet Alex, unresolved issues remain. Some, however, cannot be revisited until next winter and spring, when the chase for Kentucky Derby resumes in all its glorious insanity.

One problematic development regards the new configuration of the Gulfstream Park main track and its unmistakable influence on the Derby preps. Many watching Florida races this year were left with a nagging impression that something was missing - which there was.

The main track at Gulfstream was rebuilt for the 2005 meet and expanded from one mile to 1 1/8 miles. The overhaul took a bite out of the dirt-racing program. Races at 1 1/16 miles were eliminated; mile races were shortened to one turn.

The Gulfstream meet was only a few days old when High Fly roared to a nine-length win Jan. 8 in the Aventura, but for all intents and purposes, that race was a one-turn, one-mile sprint. All it did was confirm that High Fly was a fast horse. If the race had been run around two turns, it may have provided a true indication of High Fly's prospects at longer distances. There was still time for that.

A logical next step was a two-turn race at 1 1/16 miles, but that race is no longer offered at Gulfstream. As of 2005, the shortest two-turn dirt stakes for 3-year-olds was the 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull on Feb. 5. Draw an outside post with a quick run to the turn, and you might as well stay there. After all, the Holy Bull is only a prep race. The middle of winter is no time to sacrifice a horse by gunning him into the turn. High Fly drew post 8 for the Holy Bull, was caught wide throughout, and finished third at odds of 3-5. The one-two Holy Bull finishers broke from posts 2 and 3.

On the same card, Bandini raced gate to wire in a first-condition allowance at 1 1/8 miles. He broke from post 1. The filly Sis City wired Grade 2 foes that day, winning by 16 lengths, racing wire to wire from post 2. All three races at 1 1/8 miles - the Holy Bull, the allowance, and the Davona Dale - left a hollow feeling.

The two-turn fractions in 1 1/8-mile races are softer than fractions at a mile or 1 1/16 miles, and this winter in Florida, there was no hot pace to chase nor seasoning to gain around two turns. In High Fly's next two starts, both at 1 1/8 miles, he got better trips and won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. He chased a fast pace in the Florida Derby, and ran his final three furlongs slower than 39 seconds.

Despite winning twice at 1 1/8 miles, High Fly's campaign left him unprepared for the Derby. He was not alone. Sun King romped in a first-level allowance over a one-turn mile, then tailed off. Bellamy Road won a one-turn mile by more than 15 lengths, scored a more dramatic victory in the Wood Memorial, then finished nowhere and was injured in the Derby.

The Wood triumph by Bellamy Road and Blue Grass romp a week later by Bandini suggested the fastest 3-year-olds this year had been based in Florida. As it turns out, they were ill-equipped for the Derby. In fact, the 3-year-old stakes this year at Gulfstream Park were downright phony.

Maybe the new 1 1/8-mile configuration is not related to subsequent performances and the Derby flops are simply a reflection of the quality of the crop. But while California 3-year-olds had been justifiably derided all spring, it turns out they were in better position for the Triple Crown races than the overrated 3-year-olds based this winter in Florida. One wonders if the new 3-year-old stakes program at Gulfstream is becoming the winter equivalent of the counterfeit races run each spring at Keeneland.

At Gulfstream, the stakes program for 3-year-olds consists of only two parts - one-turn races at a mile and two-turn races at 1 1/8 miles.

Gulfstream is becoming similar to Keeneland in one regard - prep races there must be discounted.

That happened again this spring in Kentucky. The Blue Grass attracted a deep field, and Bandini turned the race into a farce, winning by six lengths. His poor showing in the Derby is tradition - Strike the Gold, in 1991, is the last horse to win the Blue Grass and Derby.

So next spring, when the insane march to the Kentucky Derby begins, handicappers may need to question the authenticity of the Florida and Kentucky preps. If stakes at Gulfstream and Keeneland fall short in preparing 3-year-olds for 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May, then the 2006 Derby winner might come from elsewhere. Perhaps the colt or filly that will wear the roses will be an undiscovered nugget prepping at Santa Anita, Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park, or places unknown.