No Excuses

by Ed Meyer

posted on April 28, 2009 in Handicapping, Kentucky Derby | 2 Comments >>

Bill Mott, Churchill Downs’ all-time winningest trainer, believes track surface is the biggest aspect in trying to put horses in races they can win, with distance a close second.

He saddles Hold Me Back, the Lane’s End winner and Blue Grass runner-up, in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, and is confident the 1 1/4 miles won’t pose a problem. Of Hold Me Back handling Churchill’s surface, Mott only said, “I’m optimistic.”

For the third year, handicapping the Derby involves more than evaluating pedigrees, running styles, form and class. It also involves speculating, guessing and maybe simply wishing that a horse who has never run, or never won, on dirt can win the Derby over Churchill Downs’ sandy loam and clay mix.

Hold Me Back has three wins and a rallying second on synthetic surfaces. In his lone dirt start, he was beaten 14 lengths in last fall’s Remsen.

“He was quite a big, gangling immature colt,” Mott said. “Though he’d trained well going into the Remsen, he threw a stinker in.” Was that because it was dirt? Or because he was hitting stakes company and faster horses for the first time? Was it totally a surface thing?

“The horse doesn’t talk. So I can’t necessarily say that was it, and I can’t say that’s not it.”

Many people say that the synthetics are a third distinct surface, along with dirt and grass. WinStar Farm, owner of Hold Me Back, also owns Mr. Hot Stuff, the Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher. Mr. Hot Stuff is a full brother to last year’s Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, who turned in a brilliant workout at Churchill that convinced many that he relished the surface. He finished sixth.

“Until you have a horse who handles traditional dirt, if they haven’t raced on it, you just don’t know,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, whose Derby contingent includes likely entrant Advice, winner of Keeneland’s Coolmore Lexington on Polytrack. “And the same with the synthetic. They can train really well on it and not perform well in the afternoon the way you expect.”

“Until they do, it’s a question mark, and I think everybody is still trying to figure it out.”

Pioneerof the Nile, Chocolate Candy and Mr. Hot Stuff will race on dirt for the first time Saturday. Last year’s horses in that position finished no better than sixth in the Derby.

In 2007, the first year for “Poly preps,” victorious Street Sense and runner-up Hard Spun came into the Derby off Polytrack races. But they had already established themselves as quality dirt horses.

If you are tempted to throw out the horses with no dirt experience, you might want to reconsider Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile.

The horses he beat during his four-stakes win streak on California synthetic tracks include Derby favorite I Want Revenge, who left California to sweep Aqueduct’s Gotham and Wood Memorial on dirt, and Papa Clem, subsequently second in the Louisiana Derby and winner of the Arkansas Derby.

Gary Stute, Papa Clem’s trainer, said Pioneerof the Nile is “getting way overlooked” and in his view is the horse to beat.

“The day he beat me and I Want Revenge (in the Robert Lewis), that’s the style I think he wants to run,” he said. “He came from out of it and just flew by us. The fact that he won two graded races up near the lead, which isn’t even his style, he’s an exceptional horse. I don’t think he’s just an artificial-track horse.”

The surface issue probably is why Pioneerof the Nile won’t be favored. His Beyer speed figures are far lower than I Want Revenge’s dirt figs, as well as those of Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk, the probable second choice in the morning line.

“If you want a (fast) Beyer or a speed figure, don’t run on synthetics,” said Bob Baffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile. “For some reason, I think they’re confused. Some horses really move up on (synthetics), but it’s a totally different race. The jockeys are so afraid to let their horses run because it’s more like a turf race. They want to take a hold of them early and let them finish like turf horses.”

He noted that his champion, Midnight Lute, won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on dirt in 2007 and Santa Anita’s synthetic track in 2008.

“If you have a great horse, you don’t have to worry about it,” Baffert said. “So we’re going to find out if we have a great horse.”

Trainer Jeff Mullins thought I Want Revenge was tailing off after he was third in the Lewis, but jockey Joe Talamo attributed the colt’s poor showing to Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride track. Next stop: New York.

“I think his acceleration is a lot better on dirt, for one,” Mullins said. ” … On synthetics, he’d hold his head really low and his knees come real high. On dirt, he holds his head straight out and throws his feet straight out, just a lot more fluid.”