Kentucky Derby winner won't be a synthetic champ

Apr 22, 2008 7:00 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Like politicians who chronically try to spin their way out of lying and denying, trainers employ a bottomless pit of excuses for losing a race. Most common among them are, in no particular order: bad ride, bad post, bad weather, bad karma, even bad training.

It’s become so absurd that the old saw, "Truth is stranger than fiction," would seem more appropriate if it were "Fiction is stranger than truth."

Occasionally, a trainer will mispeak or misremember, but by far the most prominent pretext for losing is the lame bromide, "didn’t like the track."

Barring the rarity of a dead heat for first, only one horse will win a race. Thus, the theory holds that every horse behind the winner lost because one of the aforementioned reasons applied. Yet it seems implausible that one horse would emerge triumphant because it liked the track and his rivals did not.

But in the brief time that synthetic surfaces have replaced traditional dirt tracks at venues such as Turfway Park, Woodbine, Arlington Park, Keeneland, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields, contemporary trainers and bettors alike have created a ready solution for dramatic form changes in a horse’s performance when going from dirt to synthetic and vice-versa. Case in point: Pyro’s 10th-place finish by 11 lengths behind victorious Monba in the Blue Grass Stakes over Keeneland’s Polytrack. The Equibase chart said Pyro "never fired."

Prior to that dismal showing, Pyro had established himself as one of the Kentucky Derby favorites with scintillating victories in the Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby, run on old-fashioned dirt at the venerable Fair Grounds. But in his first race over a synthetic surface, Pyro ran like a disinterested $10,000 claimer.

Knowledgeable horsemen, however, are inclined to throw that race out, and still consider Pyro to be a major player in the May 3 Derby, which will be run on dirt at Churchill Downs.

"When horses switch surfaces, they’re just cautious," explained retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who won the Derby twice, on Gato del Sol in 1982 and Sunny’s Halo in 1983. "Some horses running on turf for the first time don’t put out because they don’t have confidence. They don’t perform well. That’s what happened with Pyro. Put him on a normal surface next time and he’ll run like he did before."

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who rides Arkansas Derby winner Gayego in the Run for the Roses, echoes Delahoussaye’s sentiments.

"You’ve got to throw out Pyro’s last race, without a doubt," said Smith, who won the 2005 Derby by a half-length on 50-1 shot Giacomo, rallying from 18th in a field of 20.

Smith has been keen on Gayego since the Gilded Time colt finished second in the San Felipe Stakes on March 15, so it was no shock to the 42-year-old native of Roswell, New Mexico, when he won the Arkansas Derby. Gayego, the 2-1 favorite, pressed the pace set by 37-1 shot Tres Borrachos and won by three-quarters of a length over Z Fortune.

"He ran dynamite," Smith said of Gayego, who is trained by diminutive Brazilian Paulo Lobo, developer of 2004 sprint sensation Pico Central and 2002 three-year-old filly champion Farda Amiga.

"I’m really happy with his race," Smith continued. "He should move forward. It was a good, hard race for him and he’s become a man. I really believe he’s still progressing. If he does, I think he’s got a big chance to win the Derby."

If he does, it won’t resemble Giacomo’s late-running style at all. "Gayego did all the dirty work in the Arkansas Derby," Smith said. "He pressed Tres Borrachos and then had to hold everybody off. We hope somebody will be pressuring the leader in the Derby and we can sit right behind them. Maybe he’ll get the shot to make first run at them."

 And his thoughts on the unbeaten favorite, Big Brown? "He’s very impressive," Smith said, "but he’s very lightly raced, so the pressure could get to him. You never know. We’ll see what happens."

The homestretch

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