04/22/2009 11:00PM

Think hard before calling Dunkirk a toss-out


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - It's becoming a rite of spring. For the past several years, I've had the Kentucky Derby winner on my short list of contenders and managed to whittle him off at the last minute due to some bogus time-tested rule.

Barbaro? No can do off a five-week layoff.

Street Sense? Nah, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners don't win the Derby.

Big Brown? From post 20, with three lifetime starts? Fugeddaboudit!

Like most handicappers, my top four a week out are Quality Road, Dunkirk, I Want Revenge, and Pioneerof the Nile.

Since I'm a glutton for punishment, Dunkirk could wind up being my last X-out, because (stop me if you've heard this one before) no Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced as a 2-year-old, including 53 also-rans since the World War II era.

I wonder, though, how many of them gained more than five lengths into a second half-mile of 48.45 seconds in their final prep race, as Dunkirk did in the Florida Derby - against the grain of a track that was carrying speed exceptionally well, as noted by a -150 bias rating from the Plod Boys over at Racing Flow.

I wouldn't worry about a so-called lack of experience. Dunkirk got his wake-up call from Quality Road last time.

In terms of route experience, would you care to take a guess (no peeking at the past performances) as to how many Derby prospects have run nine furlongs twice on conventional dirt?

Only Dunkirk, West Side Bernie, and Atomic Rain.

This unraced 2-year-old thing, by the way, wouldn't even be a topic of discussion had Neil Drysdale kept Fusaichi Pegasus under wraps three more weeks. Fu Peg didn't make his debut until Dec. 11 and won his maiden as a second-time starter on Jan. 2 - or 22 days before Dunkirk.

This is a critical distinction?

I wonder, too, how many of the unraced juveniles had a four-time Eclipse winner as their trainer.

Have we already forgotten that the Todd Pletcher-trained Rags to Riches became just the third filly to win the Belmont Stakes and the first in 102 years?

This Ones for Phil has big edge in Withers

A 3-year-old still in need of graded stakes earnings could conceivably run in Saturday's Withers and wheel right back a week later. Heck, Conquistador Cielo won the Met Mile on a Monday and came back Saturday to win the Belmont by a pole. But Thoroughbreds don't do that kind of thing in the less-is-more era.

To recall, Rick Dutrow had the 3-5 favorite in the Withers three years ago, but Luxembourg was no match for an upstart named Bernardini, the eventual 3-year-old Eclipse winner.

This year's Withers drew an interesting field that includes Supreme Summit, 2 for 2 on Pro-Ride; Everyday Heroes, 3 for 3 at Oaklawn Park; Mr. Fantasy, third in the Gotham; Just a Coincidence, third in the Wood; and Gone Astray, a Phipps Stable homebred who has been threatening to be a good horse since last summer.

But ultimately, the race goes through This Ones for Phil, who Beyered 115 off a 77-day layoff when first-time Dutrow in the Sunshine Millions Dash and rebounded with a 107 in the Swale following an off race in the Fountain of Youth.

The others have made 29 combined starts, and Supreme Summit's last-out 101 Beyer is the only other triple-digit figure among the sextet.

Throw in Dutrow's 11-for-17 run through the first three weeks on the main track, and This Ones for Phil is probably a free bingo square, despite giving away five to seven pounds.

Fresh horses getting big results

You can't really knock trainers for picking and choosing their spots these days, at least not the ones who do it well. Last week, for example, fresher was better the majority of the time.

At Aqueduct, Seattle Smooth won the Bed o' Roses easily first out in seven months.

At Hawthorne, Swift Temper won the Sixty Sails off a 57-day layoff.

At Keeneland, Indescribable returned from five months off to win the Doubledogdare; Diamondrella won the Giant's Causeway with an explosive late run off a six-month break; and Ready's Echo, Precious Princess, and Born to Be all won allowance races after being away for at least six months.

Ward entrymates outduel themselves

You've got to love this game. Wesley Ward has been winning every 2-year-old race in sight, but somehow Yogaroo paid $10.20 winning the Thursday opener at Keeneland by better than five lengths.

A few minutes later, the 2-5 Ward entry of Foot the Bill and Miss Lulu Belle went out winging and dueled themselves into submission in Aqueduct's first baby race of the year, winding up third and fourth and taking down some mini bridge-jumpers in the place pool

The beneficiary of this absurdity was Bricklayer ($8.90 to win, $8.20 to place), who stalked the kamikaze barnmates and drew off as the lone member of the field coming out of a 2-year-old sale.

That's an angle that will find winners quite a few more times, I'd wager.