03/31/2008 12:00AM

Questions still remain


When a serious horseplayer watches an important horse race - especially one with implications for the Kentucky Derby - the evaluation usually requires a completely different perspective than the one that inspired a serious wager.

Indeed, the desire to understand what really happened in an important race cannot be governed by successful or disappointing race results, or even by first impressions, which can be powerful and occasionally accurate. To see a performance in context, it is essential to dig into multiple viewings of the video replay, as well as the past performances each horse brought into the contest.

The Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 29 was an eye-opener to all observers who expected the freakishly talented but inexperienced Big Brown to be compromised by his outside post.

The prerace statistics were compelling: No horse had won from post 11 or 12 in a 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream since the track was reconfigured to nine furlongs (and 17 feet) in circumference four years ago. The tally of losers from those two posts was not exactly statistically significant, but zip for 29 was cause for serious pause.

Then the gates opened, and Big Brown - a modestly sized colt with modest breeding - broke sharply from the gate to engage Fierce Wind and Nistle's Crunch for the lead. Following a quarter-mile clocked in 22.76 seconds, it was apparent that Big Brown was too fast for his rivals. He emerged with the lead midway through the first turn. As they headed into the backstretch, it also was obvious that Big Brown was traveling so smoothly that fears over his difficult starting post had been unfounded.

Any further summary of Big Brown's performance has to take special note of his half-mile in 45.83 and six furlongs in 1:10.08 - which is similar to the pace we tend to see in a swiftly run Kentucky Derby. Moreover, Big Brown reached the mile marker at the furlong pole in a solid 1:35.18 while beginning to bear in towards the rail for no discernible reason other than his inexperience.

As most know, Big Brown entered the Florida Derby with only two prior starts - an 11 1/4-length win over maidens on the Saratoga turf course for trainer Patrick Reynolds last September and a 12 3/4-length win on dirt in fast time for Rick Dutrow at Gulfstream on March 5.

Aside from sheer inexperience, Big Brown's shift towards the rail occurred despite a left-hand whipping from jockey Kent Desormeaux, and this raised a potentially troubling question: Was this in any way attributable to the colt's hoof problems that previously interrupted his career?

While such speculation may be completely off the mark, Big Brown's hoof problems will remain a background issue unless he puts in regularly spaced workouts from now to Derby Day. Given Big Brown's inherent speed and prior physical issues, it is hard not to recall the troubles that affected Unbridled's Song, who won the 1996 Florida Derby just as impressively as Big Brown only to suffer recurring hoof problems during Derby Week that undermined his Derby bid.

That aside, no one on this planet has seen a 3-year-old this year with anything close to Big Brown's natural talent. But before we make him a 24-carat cinch to win the 2008 Kentucky Derby, there is at least one more issue he will have to deal with - an issue that will play itself out Saturday, April 5, in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

War Pass, the 2007 juvenile champion, failed to display his excellent front-running speed in the Tampa Bay Derby at 1-20, and lost for the first time. He must rediscover that form in the Wood to continue on the Derby trail. Moreover, should War Pass recover his speed on Saturday, he instantly would pose a serious pace threat to Big Brown in the 10-furlong Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3.

At his best, War Pass may be the only 3-year-old in America who can turn in 46-second and 1:10 fractions and still have energy to push the mile to 1:36 or faster. Smooth Air, who had been regarded as a sprinter-miler before a series of stamina-building workouts helped him launch an improved rally for second in the Florida Derby, may continue to develop, but he no longer seems a potential pace factor for the Kentucky Derby.

Gayego, who runs in the April 12 Arkansas Derby, and Bob Black Jack, scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby or the Blue Grass at Keeneland on the same day, must show they can sustain their speed for more than seven furlongs to make problems for Big Brown or War Pass on Derby Day.

Without a fully restored War Pass to compete at peak form in Louisville, there may be nothing to stop Big Brown from controlling the pace and winning at Churchill Downs the same way he won at Gulfstream.

Yet, if War Pass does recover his form or if the Santa Anita Derby produces serious pace rivals, they may compromise Big Brown's chances and set the race up for stretch-running Pyro or Colonel John or Denis of Cork. Colonel John and Denis of Cork are scheduled to be in action April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby, respectively.

We not only have seen what Big Brown can do, we also have specific issues to keep in mind about this extraordinary talent while looking for fast milers in the remaining Derby prep races who can increase the tempo of the expected pace on Derby Day.

Likewise, the presence of such a high-quality horse with serious speed going to the Derby forces us to narrow our choice of potential stretch-running contenders to Pyro and those few additional horses who produce the strongest finishing kicks in the final round of prep races at Aqueduct, Hawthorne, and Santa Anita April 5 and Oaklawn Park, Keeneland and Gulfstream Park on April 12 and 19.