04/21/2008 12:00AM

War Pass's absence softens Derby pace


NEW YORK - War Pass, last year's champion 2-year-old male and onetime future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, is, as you well know, out indefinitely with a leg injury. But even in absentia, War Pass will have a profound impact on the race.

War Pass confirmed in his rebound second in the Wood Memorial early this month that, at least at this stage of his career, he is a horse who must have the early lead to be effective. By removing from the Derby equation a horse who was probably going to go for the early lead at any cost, it undeniably changes the dynamics of this race.

So, how does the Derby pace scenario shape up now in War Pass's absence? Let's take a look:

On the current Derby Watch, a list which this year unfortunately seems to be driven by graded earnings as much as merit, there are only four horses who can be considered speed types among the 20 who would make the Derby field as of Monday. They are, in order of graded earnings, Gayego, Big Brown, Recapturetheglory, and Cowboy Cal.

The interesting thing about these four is that, unlike War Pass, and the certifiably distance-challenged Massive Drama, who had sufficient graded earnings to start in the Derby, but who will not run after a brief flirtation with participating late last week, none is a one way speed horse. Even if Big Brown, Recapturetheglory, and Cowboy Cal performed well on the front end in their most recent starts, it should not be taken as gospel that that is the only way they can be effective.

Big Brown and Recapturetheglory come off front-running victories in the Florida and Illinois derbies, respectively, while Cowboy Cal set the pace in the Blue Grass before being edged late by Monba. None of those three, however, is a need-the-lead type. Big Brown, who rated successfully off the lead in his first start this year, went to the lead in the Florida Derby mainly because he was trying to clear from his outside post. Recapturetheglory's pace in the Illinois Derby was deliberate, as was Cowboy Cal's in the Blue Grass, and both previously won after conceding the early lead.

As for Gayego, he has been a pace player since stretching out, winning the Arkansas Derby and finishing a sharp second in the San Felipe, but he has not been a pacesetter.

So a reasonable current Derby pace scenario, which of course is subject to change along with the composition of the field, could find Big Brown, Gayego, Recapturetheglory, and Cowboy Cal all volleying with each other early on the front end in a strategically deliberate fashion that would result in a moderate early pace. This could wind up being problematic for deep closers such as Behindatthebar, should that one run in Louisville. Although Behindatthebar capitalized on a perfect pace set up and softer company to stylishly win Saturday's Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland, which gave him the graded earnings to crack the starting field in the Derby, things could unfold much less favorably at Churchill Downs for him and/or others with similar styles. The potential difficulty for deep closers in this Derby is only compounded by the fact that Big Brown, Gayego, and Recapturetheglory, aside from standing to get a nice pace set up, also earned three of the Derby field's biggest Beyer Speed Figures on their last starts.

Indeed, War Pass threatens to have a big impact on this Derby, even if he won't be there.

Thoughts on some other weekend stakes events, by track:

* Keeneland - Don't be too hard on Go Between losing in Sunday's Ben Ali Stakes as the 1-2 favorite. He was just following in a tradition established this meet by Proud Spell, Country Star, Pyro, and Panty Raid, of name horses turning in uncharacteristically poor performances over Polytrack.

* Santa Anita - I'm still not sure how much Black Mamba wants to win, but there is no question she was brutally unlucky to lose Saturday's Santa Barbara Handicap by a nose after the traffic trouble she had in the stretch.

* Hawthorne - It would have been nice to know Good and Lucky wouldn't have his speed in Saturday's Bill Hartack Memorial, and that Ryan's for Real would instead get an uncontested early lead. It was a huge factor in Ryan's for Real's victory. As for Fairbanks, he was a no-excuse second as the odds-on favorite. He isn't what he used to be, and it's debatable how good he really was, anyway. As for the Sixty Sails Handicap, also on Saturday, Golden Velvet's big win over favored Tessa Blue suggests there is validity to the notion that Tessa Blue can't effectively go nine furlongs.

* Aqueduct - The form of the Barbara Fritchie, questionable beforehand, took a beating when the winner of that race, Golden Dawn, finished a dull fourth in Saturday's Bed o' Roses Handicap behind Rite Moment.