03/15/2009 11:00PM

This round of Derby preps a head-scratcher

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NEW YORK - If you're the kind of person who likes chaos, if you prefer your work desk to look like it just lost a battle with a tornado, then what transpired in Saturday's four major Kentucky Derby preps was probably right up your alley.

Two of these four races were won by horses who aren't even nominated to the Triple Crown. And though there is still time for them to meet the final nomination deadline, that sort of thing just isn't supposed to happen at this stage. Meanwhile, the other two races were won by the favorites, but those events actually raised a few questions rather than dispelling them.

Yes, that goes for Friesan Fire. Even though his victory in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds was by far the most impressive performance from this quartet of preps, to take at purely face value that his big win signaled a major breakthrough on his part would be to ignore something as fundamentally important as the surface on which the race was run.

The track for the Louisiana Derby was sloppy and sealed. So while Friesan Fire did exactly what you would want a top Kentucky Derby prospect to do - show positional speed, score with authority, and finish in the manner of a horse looking for more distance - it's anyone's guess how much the wet track might have moved Friesan Fire up, or how much it might have compromised a few of the highly regarded contenders who finished so far behind him, or if indeed the conditions actually did either.

Supporting the notion that Friesan Fire did manage some sort of breakthrough Saturday is that his win margin of 7 1/4 lengths was the biggest of his career. So was his Beyer Speed Figure of 104, eight points better than what he earned winning the Risen Star just last month. On the other hand, runner-up Papa Clem, whether because of the slop or just dirt in general (this was his first start on a surface other than synthetic), took a small step backward Beyer-wise at a time when 3-year-olds are expected to take steps forward. And Flying Pegasus and Patena, who along with Papa Clem were the other main threats on paper off their respective seconds to Friesan Fire in the Risen Star and Lecomte, tailed off form so significantly that it's hard not to think the slop played some sort of role in preventing them from performing up to their abilities.

Pioneerof the Nile was the other winning favorite Saturday, but his victory at 1-5 in the San Felipe at Santa Anita was so lackluster that it single-handedly brought to a flying stop all the talk last week about how severely underrated Southern California's 3-year-olds were. True, Pioneerof the Nile had won two stakes over I Want Revenge, who then shipped east and won last week's Gotham in dazzling fashion. But even at the time, I Want Revenge's huge performance in the Gotham seemed more a singular example of one horse taking to conventional dirt racing in a big way rather than one horse striking a blow for all of his geographical colleagues. And that seemed even more the case after the San Felipe.

All seemed well with Pioneerof the Nile when he rallied to the front in upper stretch. But then came surprise and, yes, disappointment when Pioneerof the Nile had to be put to real pressure to maintain a daylight advantage over Feisty Suances, who in his last start two months ago ran up the white flag in the stretch of the slowly run California Derby. Pioneerof the Nile earned a Beyer of only 90, which isn't even close to what you would look for in a leading Derby candidate at this stage of the game. And while it is possible that waiting on horses after striking the front is one reason Pioneerof the Nile struggled Saturday, that is not exactly a trait to be desired in a top Derby candidate. After all, it's not like Pioneerof the Nile is so much better than anyone else that he has the margin of error to get away with such stuff.

But at least Pioneerof the Nile won. Old Fashioned went down to defeat for the first time in his life as the 2-5 favorite in Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and in the process, he abdicated his role as Kentucky Derby future-book favorite. Old Fashioned was powerless to contain the stretch run from the 56-1 Win Willy, who was understandably not among the initial group of Triple Crown nominees because all he had accomplished by that point was a maiden win last summer at Canterbury. Then again, all Win Willy had accomplished since was a rather mundane entry-level allowance sprint win at Oaklawn.

Why Old Fashioned lost is fairly apparent: He was too involved in a fast early pace. Silver City, whose pace Old Fashioned tracked, wound up almost 14 lengths behind Old Fashioned at the finish, while Hamazing Destiny, who was right behind Old Fashioned in the early stages, was an additional 13 1/2 lengths up the track. Still, this was the second straight fast-early, slow-late performance from Old Fashioned in as many starts this year. He got a pass for it in the Southwest because he was coming off a layoff and, well, he won. But now, it's hard not to think that Old Fashioned's win in the nine-furlong Remsen last fall, the race that established him, was largely owed to an easy lead through slow fractions, and weak competition. And now it's fair to wonder if in honest pace situations, Old Fashioned has distance limitations, or if he has even progressed from 2 to 3.

Expectations were not as high for the Tampa Bay Derby, because this year it didn't attract what anyone would consider to be a top Kentucky Derby candidate. Musket Man's Beyer of a mere 90 suggests that this year's Tampa Derby is unlikely to be a memorable stop on the road to Louisville.