04/28/2008 11:00PM

Who'll like (or hate) switching back to dirt

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One might think that with Kentucky racing shifting to Churchill Downs beginning Saturday, that the challenge of analyzing Keeneland's synthetic Polytrack surface is over.

On the contrary, instead of seeking to determine which horses will move up over the footing, a new puzzle awaits: seeking to determine which winners benefited from the synthetic surface and which horses' poor performances can be forgiven for not having liked the surface. The questions will apply to many races during the early portion of the Churchill meet, including next Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

In the absence of a horse having long-established dirt and synthetic form, I believe the best method to determining how a horse should have run over a synthetic surface lies in their pedigrees.

Offspring of certain sires have shown an obvious fondness for the footing, while runners by other sires, including some prominent ones, have been largely ineffective over the surface. Bloodstock Research provides a valuable resource for this information.

With the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks fast approaching, here is a look at three Derby/Oaks runners whose pedigrees suggest their recent losses over synthetic tracks can be excused - Pyro, Proud Spell, and Cool Coal Man - and another, Colonel John, whose sire statistics hint he may regress on dirt.

Pyro: A son of Pulpit, he bombed in the Blue Grass over Polytrack, finishing 10th and never challenging after a slow start. Being by Pulpit - whose offspring's stats are stronger on dirt than on synthetics - his Blue Grass debacle seems best viewed as a toss-out. Through Wednesday, two of Pulpit's 19 starters on synthetic tracks this year have won, or approximately 11 percent, about half the norm of the 500 leading synthetic sires in the country.

Proud Spell: After running a career-best race in the Fair Grounds Oaks, in which she beat champion Indian Blessing, she bounced in the Ashland over Polytrack, finishing third. Perhaps it was the super-fast race at Fair Grounds that sent her backward, but statistics also suggests it could have been the surface. She is a daughter of Proud Citizen, a promising young stallion, but one whose runners have struggled on synthetic tracks. Thirteen of his runners have tried synthetic surfaces this year, with one of them winning.

Proud Citizen, like Pulpit, had better numbers in 2007 with synthetic runners, but again, those numbers paled relative to the dirt statistics these sires piled up.

Proud Spell appears poised to win the Kentucky Oaks - provided she indeed runs there and not in the Derby.

Cool Coal Man: In contrast to Pyro, who some seem readily willing to forgive for a poor effort in the Blue Grass, I have heard very few handicappers discussing Cool Coal Man as a bounce-back candidate. That might be shortsighted because his poor effort in the Blue Grass was fairly typical of offspring of Mineshaft racing on a synthetic surface.

Eleven runners by Mineshaft have raced on synthetic surfaces this year, and not one has won a race. Last year, they did only marginally better, with 1 out of 11 winning on a synthetic surface.

Throw in that Cool Coal Man has already won over the Churchill strip, defeating eventual Illinois Derby winner Recapturetheglory in an allowance last fall, and Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man looks like a mild Derby threat at a potentially rewarding price.

Colonel John: Having raced exclusively on synthetic tracks, he is one of the biggest unknowns of the Kentucky Derby. He has shown a high level of class, winning the Santa Anita Derby, Sham, and Real Quiet Stakes, but his pedigree indicates that synthetic racing, more than dirt racing, is his calling. His sire, Tiznow, ranks first in 2008 in progeny earnings on synthetic tracks after finishing second last year.

No doubt, a good horse like Colonel John can inflate earnings, but even considering the sire's relation of winners to starters on synthetic tracks, Tiznow is a top-level synthetic sire. This year, 11 of his 31 starters on synthetics have won on the surface, translating to 35 percent winners, when the norm is 22 percent.

In fairness to Colonel John, his dual Breeders' Cup Classic-winning sire also has good numbers with dirt horses (he ranks ninth by progeny earnings on dirt in 2008, after finishing last year 30th in that category). But those numbers are not quite as good as his synthetic statistics.

Unless Colonel John posts an eye-catching work over the Churchill strip leading up to the Derby, my inclination is to take a stand against him as one of the Derby favorites.