04/07/2008 11:00PM

Two key items for Gayego


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Gayego will have two significant questions to answer on Saturday when he starts as the probable favorite in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. He must prove he can win at both two turns and on dirt as he ventures outside of Southern California's synthetic surfaces for the first time following a runner-up finish to Georgie Boy in the Grade 2 San Felipe last month at Santa Anita.

Trainer Paulo Lobo has brought Gayego to town for the Arkansas Derby to race him on dirt. The 1 1/8-mile derby will close out the Oaklawn meet, and it is expected to draw a full field of 14 horses for the first time since Graeme Hall won in 2000. There is little separating the prospective starters, but a slight edge could go to Gayego.

Gayego has more natural speed than most of his rivals. He also owns the lone triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure among the probables, a 102 earned for his win in the $80,000 San Pedro at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita in January. The San Felipe was Gayego's two-turn debut, and he earned a Beyer Figure of 91.

Gayego's case is furthered by the hot streak his regular rider, Mike Smith, has been on at Oaklawn. Smith swept last weekend's Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom - his fifth win in the race - and the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. Smith's mounts, Zenyatta and Tiago, had both had last raced at Santa Anita, just like Gayego.

All of this bodes well for Gayego, but it does not answer the big questions that need to be satisfied on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

"I think it's going to be a very interesting day Saturday," said Lobo, who trains Gayego for Cubanacan Stables. "He's running well in sprint races and long races. Let's see if he handles a mile and an eighth. It's going to answer all the questions.

"The way that he has been running and the way that he works in the mornings, I think [he will], but you never know until they race."

Smith also feels good about the distance question with Gayego, who Lobo estimates stands almost 16 hands tall and weighs a little over 1,200 pounds. The colt was with the pace in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe and finished three-quarters of a length behind Grade 1 winner Georgie Boy.

"You wanted to see off that last race in the San Felipe if he could go long, and he gave us every indication he could," said Smith, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Giacomo. "I mean, he wasn't stopping at the end. The final fraction was strong. That last eighth of a mile was stronger than the eighth before.

"I thought he ran very well. I was really happy with him, and with room to improve, too. That's what's good about him."

Lobo could have stayed home and run Gayego in last weekend's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. With Georgie Boy injured and out of that race, Gayego would have been among the favorites. Lobo wanted to get the horse on dirt, though, and he said he also likes the timing between the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

Lobo is hopeful Gayego will take to dirt Saturday.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem," he said. "He has been galloping on the dirt. We have a [dirt] training track at Hollywood Park."

Gayego, a $32,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland, has done little wrong in his career. A son of 1992 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Gilded Time out of the stakes-winning Lost Code mare Devils Lake, he made his debut at Hollywood Park last November and wired his rivals, covering six furlongs in 1:09. From there he finished second in a first-level allowance. Gayego proceeded to win the San Pedro, then was second in the San Felipe.

"You can tell he just gets better and smarter about everything every time he runs," said Smith. "And every time he trains, actually. He's gotten to where we thought he was just a one-dimensional speed horse to where, man, he's just dropping the bridle and relaxing so well now. He's really learning how to run, and he's really maturing - really at the right time, I would say."

Lobo, who won the 2002 Kentucky Oaks with Farda Amiga, said Gayego will be his first starter at Oaklawn. Gayego could also become his first starter in the Kentucky Derby.

"I've loved this horse since the beginning, since he came to the barn, and we are working for that," Lobo said of making the Kentucky Derby.

But first, there are questions to answer on Saturday.