07/19/2009 11:00PM

Turf no problem for Hold Me Back


NEW YORK - There's big doings in the mid-Atlantic region this weekend. On Saturday, Colonial Downs presents the day's richest race in the nation in the Grade 2, $750,000 Virginia Derby, supported by the Grade 3, $150,000 Virginia Oaks. Sunday is the big day at Delaware Park, as that is when the Grade 2, $1 million Delaware Handicap will be decided. But that track has a very nice card Saturday as well, topped by the Grade 2, $250,000 Delaware Oaks, and the Grade 3, $200,000 Robert G. Dick Memorial Stakes.

Not to be left out, Hollywood Park has a nice Grade 2 stakes doubleheader Saturday with the $300,000 Swaps Stakes and the $150,000 A Gleam Handicap.

Virginia Derby

I usually wouldn't take a horse making his turf debut in a grass race like this where there is solid established turf form. And there is plenty of solid grass form in this race. The first four finishers in the Colonial Turf Cup are back for more, including the runner-up, Straight Story, who was brutally unlucky not to have won that race. This race also lured Jefferson Cup winner Florentino, Woodlawn winner Affirmatif, and Barbaro's little brother Nicanor, who is 2 for 2 since switching to turf and donning blinkers. But I've been waiting for Hold Me Back to run back since he started in the Kentucky Derby, and if that means I have to take him in what will be his first attempt on grass, so be it. Surface considerations aside, I believe Hold Me Back is the best horse in this race by a comfortable margin.

Of all the horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby who were coming off synthetic-track races, I thought Hold Me Back was the most dangerous. Although he didn't beat much when he won the Lane's End in his first start this year, his was still a very nice effort. Despite making his first start in four months, he won going away and bettered his previous best Beyer Speed Figure by a substantial 22 points.

That Lane's End win provided Hold Me Back with more than enough graded earnings to secure a berth in the Derby, and there was strong consideration given to just training him up to the first leg of the Triple Crown. Instead, he squeezed in a start in the Blue Grass, and despite treating that race as merely a prep in every sense of the term, Hold Me Back still finished a gaining second after a very wide trip.

In the Derby, however, Hold Me Back had no shot to make best use of his good late kick because of the ridiculous trip he was given. Hold Me Back was sent up from well off the pace to make a big run down the backstretch to be a co-third entering the far turn. But after making that sustained move about a half-mile too soon (no exaggeration), Hold Me Back understandably ran out of gas in the stretch and finished 12th.

As far as the switch to turf, there are several reasons to think this will work for Hold Me Back. For one, he is 3 for 4 in his career on synthetic surfaces, with his only such loss being his fine try in the Blue Grass. Since it is widely accepted that turf horses do well on synthetic, it stands to reason that the reverse - synthetic horses doing well on turf - should hold true. Being by Giant's Causeway, Hold Me Back is certainly bred for grass on top, and he's out of an unraced Unbridled's Song mare who has already thrown a minor turf winner. And Hold Me Back is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who certainly knows a turf horse when he sees one.

A Gleam Handicap

This race has a little bit of everything. It's got a couple of 3-year-olds (Lady Lumberjack and Evita Argentina) meeting older, it's got a nice filly in Lovely Isle making her first start for a new barn trying to prove she really is as effective on synthetic as she is on dirt, it's got a mare in Silver Swallow trying to prove she can win a race with a name on it, and it's got a mare in Coco Belle who has the best last-out Beyer Figure by a good margin, but who is suspect at this seven-furlong distance. This is a good spot to take a shot, and I'm taking a shot with Modification.

Modification's last two starts are best overlooked. Last time out, she ran into the undefeated champion Zenyatta in the Vanity, and two starts back she ran in the Gamely on turf, a surface she has yet to show a real affinity for. But Modification is cutting back to a sprint from a route here. The last time she did that was three starts back, and she ran deceptively well in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on Derby Day. Modification finished in a dead heat for third with Dubai Majesty, who came back to win the Winning Colors Stakes, and finished just more than a length behind Informed Decision, who came back to win the Chicago Handicap with a 102 Beyer. And Modification, who was put on her toes with a sharp work on Wednesday, finished strongly in the Humana Distaff while racing well out in the track, away from the rail bias.

Robert G. Dick Memorial Handicap

Dress Rehearsal failed at odds-on last time out in the Bewitch Stakes despite setting an extremely slow pace, bowing to Winter View, who was in the midst of putting together a win streak that has since grown to three. These two meet again in this race, and I like Dress Rehearsal to make amends.

Even though she got away with trotting-horse fractions in the Bewitch, I suspect Dress Rehearsal did not enjoy having to show the way. She's much more effective with something to run at, which she'll get here thanks to Precious Princess. Moreover, if the weather forecast holds, Dress Rehearsal might get some cut in the ground, and that was instrumental in her big win in the Orchid Stakes two starts back.