Colonel John has the résumé of a Derby favorite, but questions remain about how he'll handle his first race on dirt
To understand how much synthetic surfaces have changed thoroughbred racing -- and inverted the esoteric calculus of handicapping -- one need look no further than Colonel John. In years past the big bay colt from California would probably have been a clear favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
Possessed with an impressive physique and a solid pedigree, he has won four of six starts and twice prevailed at nine furlongs (220 yards shorter than the Derby distance). No other Derby contender boasts so full a range of credentials. But the Colonel has never raced on dirt, the surface he'll be asked to master this Saturday at Churchill Downs, and that has been enough to drop him in the esteem of bettors, who still aren't sure how to evaluate races run over synthetics. At week's end Colonel John was the second choice of Vegas oddsmakers behind Florida Derby winner Big Brown, a precocious but inexperienced burner who is trying to become the first horse since Regret in 1915 to win the Derby off only three starts. Big Brown has, however, won all three of those starts, and all of them were on dirt.
In an effort to reduce racing injuries, the California Horse Racing Board in 2007 required all tracks in the state to convert their main racing ovals from dirt to more forgiving artificial surfaces -- made of a mix of sand, synthetic fibers and wax. While the number of fatal injuries has dropped, many trainers complain that their horses have come up lame with more hind-end and soft-tissue injuries. "They run over the top of the stuff," John Shirreffs, who trained Giacomo to a Derby win in '05, says, suggesting that horses don't dig into the surface as they do on dirt. Even more alarming, synthetic tracks, which can be found in at least four states, have proved to be almost farcically slow and remarkably tiring to horses who like to run up front, a major change in a sport dominated for decades by speed. After losing 19 of his first 20 races at Del Mar last summer, Bob Baffert shipped his best horses to Saratoga, griping that synthetics "disrespect the ability of the horse and disrespect the game."
Synthetic tracks have made a hash of this spring's Derby prep races. In the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 12, even-money favorite Pyro, making his first start on an artificial track, was never in contention and finished 10th, a result his trainer, Steve Asmussen, attributed to the surface switch. On the same day in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, California runner Gayego, making his first start on dirt, scored an impressive win. What's a gambler to do? The betting handle was down about 13 percent this spring at Keeneland, which switched to a synthetic surface in the fall of 2006; track officials attribute the drop in part to uncertain punters.
While questions surround every California contender this week, there's reason to believe that Colonel John can overcome the surface switch. His come-from-behind style is perfectly suited to a Derby that figures to have plenty of pace. And Gayego's victory in Arkansas suggests that going from synthetics to dirt may be easier than going the other way. "He's not a horse who needs to take his surface with him," says Eoin Harty, the trainer of Colonel John. "If you ignore his synthetic races, you ignore them at your peril."