05/02/2010 11:00PM

Should have been Ice Box wearing roses


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The obvious story lines from Super Saver's Kentucky Derby victory on Saturday involved the winner's immediate connections, trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Calvin Borel. I believe there is more than just a small measure of poetic justice in Pletcher getting his first Derby win in this particular Derby after earlier in the week losing to injury the colt who had this Derby field over a barrel, Eskendereya. And as for Borel, winning the Derby three of the last four years the way he has - scraping paint virtually every step of the way all three times with Street Sense, Mine That Bird, and now Super Saver - is a roll that borders on the unreal.

But for me, there were some other Derby story lines that resonate just as strongly.

Taking nothing away from Super Saver's accomplishment, but Ice Box was brutally unlucky not to have won this Derby. After racing far back early, which is his custom, Ice Box was rolling on the far turn when he had to take up behind an opponent. He got going again, only to have to take up sharply behind a wall of horses in upper stretch, wait for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, and then angle out for racing room at a severe loss of momentum. Yet after getting stopped that badly twice and having to veer out, all at a critical juncture of the Derby, Ice Box managed to gain giant gobs of ground in the late stages to make Super Saver's win margin of 2 1/2 lengths feel a lot smaller that it was.

Lookin At Lucky also deserved a better fate than his sixth-place finish. With a horse like Lookin At Lucky, who is neither a drop-out-of-it closer or a Quarter Horse-type out of the gate, drawing the 1-hole in this Derby was disastrous. Unless he beat the gate, he was at high risk of getting shuffled back badly in the early stages, with 19 opponents coming down on him. Sure enough, he found himself in 18th in a blink of an eye. And for all of Lookin At Lucky's accomplishments, he simply could not win from there because, like everyone else in this very closely matched Derby on paper, he had zero margin for error. Yes, I know that Mine That Bird came from 10 miles back to win last year's Derby as a rank outsider, but that doesn't count. That was an aberration. For the extreme disadvantage he was at, Lookin At Lucky deserves credit for doing as well as he did.

What was astonishing about this Derby for a handicapper attuned to track biases is the way it was won, with Super Saver laying close on the rail, getting off the inside only to go around the stopping Conveyance before getting right back to the wood. Track biases are subjective, but I was not the only one to notice that there was a distinct bias earlier on the Derby card in favor of outside closers and against rail-runners. This bias seemed to get only stronger from races 3 through 6 and race 8 (the seventh race was on turf). But as bias believers and some sharp jockeys know, biases can often disappear as quickly as they appear. That's why Saturday's ninth race, the Churchill Downs Stakes, the last main-track race before the Derby, was interesting. In this stakes, the jockey on Atta Boy Roy sent his mount right to the lead and steered him over to the inside, which up to that point would have been a great move if you wanted to lose. But instead of being swallowed up like other inside speed horses were earlier, Atta Boy Roy went wire to wire. His jockey? Calvin Borel. I wonder if Borel saw something between the eighth and ninth races - some change in track maintenance, perhaps - that made him think the rail had suddenly become okay.

One of the things no one likes about wet tracks on big race days is that it gives every beaten horse a built-in excuse, whether they deserve it or not. But in the case of this Derby, I can only think of two who might be able to use the slop as a legitimate excuse. One is Sidney's Candy (17th), who was not only racing on dirt for the first time but caught slop to boot, and Awesome Act (19th), who ran far below even tempered expectations. Everyone else either made a move and was simply not good enough or was obviously overmatched going in.

Finally, nothing I saw in this Derby made me want to change my mind that horses who have raced exclusively on synthetic tracks aren't at a disadvantage when they race on dirt for the first time in the Derby.

Other impressions from the weekend

Rachel Alexandra ran okay in narrow defeat in Friday's La Troienne Stakes, but she is clearly not the horse she was last year. In 2009, she wouldn't let an opponent like Unrivaled Belle get within hailing distance of her. What I don't get is some of the criticism that has been directed toward Borel, who also is Rachel Alexandra's jockey. The only thing I could knock Borel for concerning his ride on Rachel Alexandra on Friday was that he didn't open up once they took the lead on the far turn and make Unrivaled Belle work to draw even with them, but that's nitpicking. What can be knocked was Borel not talking to the press after Rachel lost. It's not cool being media friendly when you win, but not talking when you take a tough beat.

It wasn't a spectacular weekend for the 3-year-old fillies. Blind Luck's victory as the heavy favorite in Friday's Kentucky Oaks was desperate instead of resounding, and Hot Dixie Chick was shockingly empty finishing a distant third at odds-on in Saturday's Eight Belles Stakes, though she did race against the bias.

Public-relations maestro Scott Cooper pointed out an incredible statistic published in Saturday's Louisville Courier-Journal that I should have known, but didn't: The last Kentucky Derby winner who won a stakes race as a 2-year-old at Saratoga was Swale in 1984. This streak lives another year after Dublin and Backtalk, who won stakes at Saratoga last summer, finished seventh and 20th in the Derby.