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HORSE RACES run in the early spring by expensive and promising three-year-olds are called "prep" races, as in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. This title implies succession and orderliness, when in fact there is often chaos. The major prep season closed last Saturday with a surprise victory by Monba in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course and a more expected win by Gayego in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. (This Saturday's Lexington Stakes remains, but that race, only two weeks before the Derby, has produced one Derby winner in the last 23 years.)
The Blue Grass was notable at both the top and bottom of the finishing order. Monba and Cowboy Cal went one-two, giving prolific trainer Todd Pletcher two probable starters in pursuit of his first Derby win; before the race it appeared that he might have none. (Both needed graded-stakes earnings to get a spot in the gate at Churchill Downs.) Pletcher, who has won four consecutive Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, is 0 for 19 in his Derby career, a record for starters without a victory.
At the other end of the race, Louisiana Derby winner Pyro plodded to a 10th-place finish, which his connections blamed on the horse's dislike for Keeneland's synthetic Polytrack surface—even though Pyro had trained on it frequently. "The worst race of his life, and it's on this stuff," said David Fiske, the racing manager for Pyro's owner, Winchell Thoroughbreds. "We're writing it off to the surface. It was in the back of our minds that he might not like it."
Pyro wasn't the only well-regarded Blue Grass starter to run badly. Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man was ninth, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck was 11th. All three will draw strength from the fact that Street Sense lost in last year's Blue Grass to long shot Dominican and came back to win the Derby. But Street Sense was a strong second in the Blue Grass.
Choosing any of this year's Blue Grass laggards in Louisville will be a leap of faith. Only three times in the last 28 years has the Derby winner finished worse than third in its final prep race—and in each case the horse finished fourth. The x factor is the introduction of synthetic surfaces to the prep equation, which started two years ago.
This may be a Derby steeped in all forms of faith. The presumptive favorite is Florida Derby winner Big Brown, who has chronically bad hooves and is trying to become the first horse since Regret in 1915 to win the Derby off just three career starts. The second choice will be Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, who has never won a race on any surface other than synthetics. (Gayego had not raced on dirt or outside California until his victory in Arkansas, an indication that the California crop may be very strong.) Both may indeed be brilliant racehorses, but their r�sum�s are paper-thin.
Says Pletcher, "Success in January, February and March doesn't necessarily equate to success on the first Saturday in May. It's a very difficult race to win." This is especially true in a year when so few of the contenders have proved themselves capable and so many have shown themselves lacking.
ONLY AT SI.COM Complete Derby coverage from Tim Layden.