Updated on 09/18/2011 9:36AM

Synthetic Derby preps cause crisis of faith


WASHINGTON - When the undistinguished colt Monba won Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes, with the highly regarded Kentucky Derby contender Pyro finishing 10th, the result may have surprised or confused many racing fans. It deserved another reaction, too: sheer dismay. The prep races leading up to the Derby have in many cases been shorn of significance or interest.

The weeks preceding the Derby used to be one of the best times of the year for Thoroughbred racing. Although the sport's overall popularity has declined, the Triple Crown series and the 3-year-old prep races leading into it commanded widespread attention from the media and the public. Even casual fans watch the prep races intently, looking for the colt who will move them to exclaim, "That's my Derby horse!"

The prep races have prompted few such exclamations this year. The current generation of 3-year-olds has been disappointing; neither War Pass nor Pyro, the top 2-year-olds of 2007, has lived up to expectations. Only one colt has delivered anything resembling a spectacular performance: Big Brown, in his Florida Derby victory. The quality of this year's Derby crop is just a transitory disappointment, but the prep races have undergone what may be a permanent change for the worse.

The major reason has been the installation of synthetic surfaces at the sites of significant 3-year-old stakes - Santa Anita, Turfway Park, and particularly Keeneland. Everyone involved in the game - from Hall-of-Fame trainers to gamblers in the grandstand - has been struggling to understand the nuances of these new surfaces. Everyone knows by now that early speed is generally less important on synthetics than it is on dirt. Almost everyone agrees that the synthetic surfaces and dirt are two different games, and that a horse is unlikely to display the same level of ability on both surfaces.

Most mature bettors never expect handicapping to be easy. They accept synthetic tracks as just another factor that needs to be understood and mastered. But in the 3-year-old stakes races that precede the Kentucky Derby, the presence of synthetic tracks has not merely complicated the game. It has made rational handicapping judgments almost impossible.

Never was this as apparent as it was Saturday in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes - a race that was once the most meaningful of all Derby preps. Keeneland's Polytrack is less kind to speed horses than almost any other synthetic track. Accordingly, jockeys put their horses under early restraint and try to accelerate late, tactics that produce bunched finishes and sometimes bizarre results. Last year the leading 3-year-old, Street Sense, lost the Blue Grass in a four-horse photo finish, a result that had nothing to do with the relative ability of the horses. Street Sense came back to win the Derby, while the other three finished 11th, 12th, and 17th at Churchill Downs.

But if the 2007 result was fluky, 2008 was incomprehensible. Pyro, the electrifying stretch-runner, was by far the most accomplished horse in the field, but he was making his first start on a synthetic track. Cool Coal Man, winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, was considered his main rival; he, too, had done all of his previous racing on dirt. Big Truck was a well-regarded contender, too, after winning the Tampa Bay Derby on dirt.

On Polytrack, none of these three got into contention; they finished ninth, 10th, and 11th in the field of 12. Meanwhile, the top four finishers, headed by Monba, were all colts who had never finished in the money in a stakes race on dirt.

What was the significance of Pyro's bad performance? ESPN's Saturday telecast featured two of the best analysts in the sport, Randy Moss and former jockey Jerry Bailey, and each voiced a strong opinion. Asked if he would forgive the bad effort because it was on Polytrack, Bailey replied, "Absolutely. A horse that good can't run that bad [without a legitimate excuse]." Moss shot back: "I'm not buying it," observing that even mediocre rivals outfinished Pyro in the stretch. "Maybe he didn't like the track, but what about the nine horses ahead of him?" Moss asked. "Did they all like the track better than he did?"

Handicappers will surely have more questions like these when Keeneland runs the final important Derby prep, the Lexington Stakes, on Saturday. And they certainly have questions about most of the California-based Derby contenders, such as Colonel John and El Gato Malo, who have spent their entire careers running over artificial surfaces on the Southern California circuit. At least the form on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track bears some resemblance to dirt form - Gayego, who trains at Hollywood, made a successful transition to dirt when he won the Arkansas Derby Saturday. But an element of uncertainty nevertheless surrounds all of California's other Derby contenders.

Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby has never been easy under any circumstances. Because it is such a rigorous test of handicapping skills, bettors have always cherished the bragging rights that come from being right in this race. But now it has become an unfair test. Horseplayers can do little more than guess whether Pyro's poor showing at Keeneland is excusable, or whether the top California horses will duplicate their synthetic-track form when they run at Churchill Downs. The prep races run on synthetic surfaces raise questions that can't be answered with any confidence - at least not until after the Derby has been run.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post