11/19/2009 12:00AM

Synthetic-track stakes still relevant to Derby

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The advent of the synthetic-track age in Southern California has forced some unforeseen handicapping ramifications on horseplayers, one being how to assess prospective Derby candidates who established themselves on synthetic footing. The old dirt situation reliably revealed the best of the West as those top juveniles went through Oak Tree's Norfolk, maybe the Breeders' Cup wherever it was held, and in Hollywood's year-end prize, the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity. That race has produced numerous Derby/Triple Crown protagonists such as Ferdinand, Snow Chief, Alysheba, A.P. Indy, Casual Lies, Thunder Gulch, Real Quiet, and Lion Heart.

It's far trickier now, however. Under the best of circumstances, it's tough enough to predict how a 2-year-old will progress with time, distance, and experience, and how that adds up to whether he's a Derby player or not. Now you have to take all that into account and the question of whether said horse will handle dirt.

Saturday's Grade 3 Prevue at Hollywood is a prep for the Futurity, to be run Dec. 19. It's a sprint, so you have to take its Derby ramifications with a grain of salt, but it may stamp certain horses potential players for the Futurity and beyond, when the big 3-year-old races loom at Santa Anita in the winter and spring. How that may translate to 1 1/4 miles on Churchill Downs dirt on the first Saturday in May is a whole other matter.

The general consensus among national writers/handicappers was that the 2008 CashCall Futurity wasn't the strongest race in the world. Pioneerof the Nile's winning Beyer Speed Figure of 86 was well below the average winning figure of 99, and his grind-it-out style to get the win didn't get the pulse racing for many. However, Pioneerof the Nile would acquit himself quite nicely, thank you, five months later, running second to Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby. Futurity runner-up I Want Revenge would dazzle in New York - on dirt - and was the Derby favorite before being scratched the morning of the race. Third-place finisher Chocolate Candy would be a respectable fifth in the Derby. Another Southern Californian, Papa Clem, while not a participant in the Futurity, showed still more surface crossover ability, finishing fourth in the Derby. That gave Southern Californians a 2-4-5 finish in the Derby.

The culprit may not be so much the synthetic surface itself, but the race shape that often transpires on such footing, in the case of Hollywood Park, the Cushion Track. It is likely the very reason the magnificent mare Zenyatta hasn't posted the high Beyer Speed Figures one would equate with her dominance. It's because synthetics often lead to a race shape more like turf races, leading to speed figures more like turf races than dirt races. The surface also may encourage turf-like crowded finishes, which may lead some observers to give the race less credence, as so many did with last year's Futurity. That's nobody's fault - it may merely mean our Derby assessments have to change. After all, on the face of it a big margin of victory on dirt is likely to get a more positive response than a field that finishes bunched up at the wire.

Another aspect of the surface crossover is pedigree, but in a different sense than in previous years. Yes, pedigree is always important when projecting a horse's Derby hopes, but it has been mainly keyed on the distance issue. While many a turf horse and turf-bred horse have handled synthetic footing well, those dirt-bred runners who handle synthetic probably require a longer look. You can't merely say, "Well, they ran well on synthetic, so they're synthetic horses." Again, look at the top three from last year's Futurity who handled dirt, either in the Derby or in the case of I Want Revenge, in New York. They were, in fact, primarily dirt-bred. Their respective sires Empire Maker, Stephen Got Even, and Candy Ride were all Grade 1 winners routing on dirt. Papa Clem was sired by Smart Strike, a Grade 1 winner routing on dirt and the sire of multiple Grade 1 dirt route winner and Horse of the Year Curlin.

Saturday's Prevue could be true to its name. Some non-Breeders' Cup aspirants are looking to punch a ticket to the Futurity, led by American Lion. The son of Tiznow (multiple Grade 1 winner routing on dirt) came with a gaudy reputation even before his Oct. 18 debut at Keeneland. All he did as the 6-5 favorite was romp by 6 3/4 lengths for a 93 Beyer. A similar big run in the Prevue could send him into the Futurity as a potential major Derby player for trainer Eoin Harty.

In the CashCall Futurity, toss in the likely national leading 2-year-old Lookin at Lucky (sired by Smart Strike), who suffered his first defeat when second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Noble's Promise, third in the BC Juvenile; and unbeaten Connemara, a half-brother to Lion Heart, who won the 2003 Futurity and went on to run second in the Kentucky Derby, and you have the makings of a most crucial test, regardless of surface.

But since the Futurity will be run on synthetic, there may have to be a change on how we assess its relevance to the Derby. In years past, on dirt, with uniform figures, we could let the science of handicapping color our assessments. In this new age, however, with a surface that sometimes leads to results more open to interpretation, we may have to rely a little more on the art of handicapping.

Judging Derby potential from Southern California's synthetic tracks may be something akin to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when discussing obscenity: We may not be able to define it or describe it, but we know it when we see it.