03/10/2009 11:00PM

Testing unfamiliar ground

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Benoit & Associates
Papa Clem (yellow cap), runner-up in last month's Robert Lewis on Pro-Ride, switches to dirt for Saturday's Louisiana Derby.

NEW ORLEANS - In this Kentucky Derby election cycle, the early returns have been encouraging for California. It is a trend trainer Gary Stute is hoping continues Saturday, when he sends out Papa Clem, the runner-up in last month's Robert Lewis Stakes, in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby here at Fair Grounds.

Stute's hopes for success this weekend were boosted last Saturday. I Want Revenge, who had finished behind Pioneerof the Nile and Papa Clem in the Lewis, traveled to Aqueduct and crushed his rivals in the Gotham Stakes. The result was a boost to the credentials of the California-based 3-year-olds in general, but, more specifically, showed that horses training and racing on the synthetic surfaces in California could hold their own - even improve - on dirt.

"He did the same thing I'm trying to do, fly in and not work over the track," said Stute, the son of trainer Mel Stute. "I hope it works for me, too."

The switch to synthetic surfaces in California is still in its relative infancy when it comes to evaluating form heading into the Derby. This is only the second full season in which 3-year-olds preparing for the Derby in California have been confined exclusively to synthetic surfaces. Last year, Colonel John emerged as the best colt in California following a string of strong performances on synthetic surfaces, including a victory in the Santa Anita Derby. He finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, but later in the year won the Travers Stakes on dirt.

Figuring out whether a horse will like dirt is a guessing game, in large part because the Southern California tracks are not similar. Most handicappers believe that among Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita, it is Hollywood Park's Cushion Track surface that most approximates dirt. I Want Revenge was a narrow loser of Hollywood's CashCall Futurity to Pioneerof the Nile in December. Papa Clem finished out of the money is his only two starts at Hollywood Park, but both were sprints, and he has clearly improved since stretching out around two turns.

"He's got a big, nice stride, which makes me think he'll like it," Stute said.

For owners and trainers with horses in California, it is something they are deciphering, without a whole lot of data to go on thus far.

"It seems to me that horses who run over the Pro-Ride handle the transition to dirt well, but I'm not so sure it works the other way around," said Michael Iavarone, the co-president of the IEAH Stables partnership, which now campaigns the champion filly Stardom Bound.

There are two schools of thought in California when it comes to prepping for the Derby vis-a-vis synthetic surfaces. Some trainers prefer to remain in California, and roll the dice on Derby Day, figuring if their horses like it, they like it. Others want to find out beforehand.

"I'm sure there's a lot of guys here in California still wondering if their horse can run on dirt," said Jeff Mullins, who trains I Want Revenge. "That's one question we don't have to worry about now. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable knowing he can run on dirt."

There are many other factors involved in deciding whether and where to ship for a Derby prep, ranging from surfaces to availability of a certain jockey on a certain date to competition to something as basic as purses. It was the $600,000 prize money of the Louisiana Derby, when compared with the $200,000 offered at Santa Anita this week in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, that made a trip to New Orleans attractive to Stute and Papa Clem's owner, Bo Hirsch. Plus, Papa Clem would not have to again run against Pioneerof the Nile, who will be a heavy favorite in the San Felipe.

"The race there is $600,000, this one's $200,000," Stute said. "We know how he stacks up against the ones here. Let's see if he's as good on dirt as he is on synthetic."

Stute said that if Papa Clem runs well on Saturday, he will remain on dirt for his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. Stute said Papa Clem would not return to California. Instead, he would stay here to train for either the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 4, or the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 11.

In other Derby developments:

* There are four Grade 2 stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday, all at 1 1/16 miles. In addition to the Louisiana Derby and San Felipe, the $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby will be run. Old Fashioned, the pro-tem favorite for the Derby, heads the probable field for the Rebel.

* Quality Road will definitely run in the Grade 1, $750,000 Florida Derby on March 28, trainer Jimmy Jerkens said Wednesday. John Velazquez will ride, rather than head to the United Arab Emirates that day for the Dubai World Cup card.

* Jockey Edgar Prado picked up mounts on two Derby prospects on Wednesday. He will be on West Side Bernie in the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 21, and has regained the mount on Gotham runner-up Imperial Council, whose next start will be in the Wood Memorial.

* Vineyard Haven is now unlikely for the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 28, according to Simon Crisford, racing manager for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing. "He has not been pleasing us since his last race and we have missed some time with him," Crisford said in an e-mail.

Vineyard Haven, the Champagne Stakes winner, was fourth in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 12 in his lone start this year.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Mike Welsch

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WHO'S HOT

There are two newcomers to this week's top 20 of Derby Watch, Chocolate Candy and Take the Points. But the hottest horse is I Want Revenge, the winner of the Gotham Stakes last Saturday at Aqueduct. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, sliced I Want Revenge's price on his Kentucky Derby future line to 12-1 after having him at 40-1 a week ago. Take the Points, the Sham runner-up, is 30-1, while Chocolate Candy is 50-1.

WHO'S NOT

Stardom Bound and Vineyard Haven both were dropped from the top 20. Stardom Bound is off the Derby trail after her hard-fought victory against a moderate group of fillies in the Santa Anita Oaks. Vineyard Haven, last year's Champagne Stakes winner, disappointed in his first start of the year in Dubai, and is unlikely to participate in the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 28.

ON THE BUBBLE

There should be plenty of opportunity for adjustments following this weekend, since nine of the top 20 are running in four stakes on Saturday. Those ready to move onto the list should a current resident fail to fire include Bear's Rocket, who is scheduled to run in the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, and Silver City, who is scheduled to run in the Rebel on Saturday at Oaklawn.

- Jay Privman