02/28/2008 12:00AM

Transition to dirt becomes a worry

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Benoit & Associates
Colonel John, who will start in the Sham Stakes, has raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The trainers of 3-year-olds based in California this winter are hoping their Kentucky Derby prospects are not as artificial as the surfaces over which they have been racing.

The current crop of 3-year-olds is the first of locally based horses who - unless they sneak in a race at Bay Meadows or leave the state in the next two months - will head to the Kentucky Derby on May 5 without ever having raced on conventional dirt, which is still in place at Churchill Downs.

And as if that weren't enough of a puzzle for trainers and handicappers, this winter at Santa Anita has included the added headache of rainy weather that forced the cancellation of 11 days of racing at Santa Anita, and affected training.

Colonel John and El Gato Malo, the two leading contenders in the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita, have raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces. So, too, has San Vicente Stakes winner Georgie Boy, who is awaiting the Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 15 as his final prep for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5. By the time they leave for Kentucky, it may be easy to compare them against one another, but how they stack up against horses who have raced on conventional dirt could be a complete leap of faith.

Colonel John will be making his first start since a second-place finish in the CashCall Futurity on Dec. 22. Eoin Harty, his trainer, believes horses who prep on synthetic surfaces will be able to handle dirt.

"My own personal experience is I think you can train on synthetic surfaces and run on conventional dirt, but I don't think you can do vice-versa," Harty said. "I trained at Keeneland all summer and won my fair share at Churchill Downs. And when Hollywood Park first put in Cushion Track, before Santa Anita switched, too, horses who trained at Hollywood did well racing at Santa Anita, but horses training at Santa Anita had a tough time when they raced at Hollywood Park."

Colonel John is based at Santa Anita, but Harty sent him across town to Hollywood Park to work when the track was being reconstituted to its current mix of material from Pro-Ride and Cushion Track.

"He spent more time on the Harbor Freeway then he did on the racetrack at Santa Anita," Harty said. "But I don't think the weather impacted his fitness. He's an easy horse to get fit and keep fit."

El Gato Malo, who is unbeaten in three starts, and Georgie Boy both are based at Hollywood Park, whose main track held up better during the wet weather earlier this year. Craig Dollase, the trainer of El Gato Malo, on Wednesday said he "hasn't missed a beat" in his preparation.

"We were fortunate," he said.

Georgie Boy was scheduled to make his first start of the year in the Sunshine Millions Dash, but trainer Kathy Walsh was not comfortable with how much material had been scraped off the track in order to race on Jan. 26. So, she waited until the San Vicente on Feb. 10.

"He missed the first race, but it might have been a blessing in disguise," Walsh said. "The surface was a question for me. I didn't want to gun him from the gate. I wanted him to relax. He got to go seven-eighths instead of six.

"Dirt is a question. I think he'll like it, but you don't know for sure until they do. But I do feel comfortable staying here and running in the San Felipe and then the Santa Anita Derby."

In other Derby developments:

* A field of seven was entered Wednesday for the 1 1/8-mile Sham, with El Gato Malo drawing the rail and Colonel John post 6. The remainder of the field, from the rail out, is Success Fee, Coast Guard, Trevor's Clever, Victory Pete, and Reflect Times.

* El Gato Malo breezed three furlongs in 37 seconds Wednesday at Hollywood Park. "He's doing great," Dollase said. "I had to take the edge off of him a little."

* Visionaire, third in the Risen Star Stakes, will avoid Risen Star winner Pyro and the comebacking Majestic Warrior, the Hopeful winner, in next week's Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. Instead, he will go in either the Grade 3, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 8, or the Gradeo2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn one week later, trainer Michael Matz said Wednesday.

"He's going to work Saturday, and we'll take a look at who's going where," Matz said. "At this point, the Gotham looks more favorable. But if there's weather in New York, we still have something to fall back on."

* Jockeys Rafael Bejarano and Garrett Gomez, both of whom have ridden Georgie Boy to victories in his last two starts, have conflicts on March 15 that may prevent them from riding Georgie Boy in the San Felipe. "I'm not sure who's going to ride him," Walsh said.

* Trainer Paulo Lobo said he will decide after a workout this weekend whether to stretch out Gayego in the Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on March 8, or await the San Felipe one week later.

* With so many of his 3-year-olds aiming for similar Derby preps, trainer Nick Zito said the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 12 is an option. "There's a good possibility I'll run something there," said Zito, who won the Blue Grass three times when it was run on dirt. "I admire what Carl Nafzger did last year with Street Sense." Street Sense was second in the Blue Grass, on Polytrack, before his Derby win.

WHO’S HOT

Elysium Fields, who was a close second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Sunday at Gulfstream Park, makes his debut on the Derby Watch top 25. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, made him 25-1 on his Kentucky Derby future line. Watchmaker’s current Derby favorite, War Pass, was lowered to 3-1 from last week’s 4-1 following an easy victory in his 3-year-old debut Sunday at Gulfstream. Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man had his priced slashed in half to 20-1 from last week’s 40-1.

WHO’S NOT

Yankee Bravo didn’t do anything wrong, but had to be removed from the top 25 to make room for Elysium Fields. Watchmaker raised the prices on several Fountain of Youth runners, including third-place finisher Court Vision, who is now 20-1 after being the third choice, at 10-1, last week. Monba, who finished last in the Fountain of Youth, is now 40-1 after being 15-1 a week ago. Anak Nakal and Z Humor also saw their prices inch up.

ON THE BUBBLE

The Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday is the lone graded stakes race for Derby prospects this weekend. Reflect Times, third in the Robert Lewis on Feb. 2 after winning his first two starts in sprints, could move onto the list if he can prove he can handle two turns in the Sham. He is adding blinkers.