HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- The trend has been unmistakable. Time and again in recent months, across all divisions, horses have been leaving Southern California, having raced or trained on the synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, and won when moving to dirt.
The most notable victory was by Zardana, who upset Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds. Freedom Star won the Azeri here at Oaklawn Park. Harissa took the Sunland Park Oaks. Goldsville went to Aqueduct and won two straight races, including the Excelsior for older horses last Saturday.
But where the trend has been most noticeable has been among 3-year-old prospects for the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Bob Baffert sent Conveyance to Oaklawn Park to win the Southwest Stakes in February, then returned here last month with Lookin At Lucky and won the Rebel. Last Saturday, American Lion, who disappointed in two starts at Santa Anita this winter, went to Hawthorne and scored a front-running victory in the Illinois Derby.
Horses who regress off big efforts are often said to bounce. This, however, is the opposite of the bounce effect. The synthetic-to-dirt play is more like a trampoline.
But why is it so? Among the reasons are the quality of top-level racing in California, the fitness afforded by racing and training on synthetic surfaces, and the ability of horses with speed to accentuate that trait on dirt. So say Baffert; Eoin Harty, the trainer of American Lion; and John Sadler, who trains Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney's Candy.
"They get to show their speed," Baffert said. "They get to show their stuff. Look at American Lion. He was gone. On the synthetic, the jockeys grab their horses. It's basically turf racing. Good horses can't separate themselves on synthetic surfaces. Horses with speed are far more effective on dirt. You can't show that kind of speed on synthetic."
Harty races in Southern California in the winter but has strings in Kentucky and New York during the course of a calendar year, so he has perhaps the most well-rounded view. He ascribes to the theory that California racing, for all its problems these days, "is far superior to anywhere in the country, with the exception of Saratoga."
"There's no new blood in California, so you're facing the same competition, and those horses tend to look the same, but they stand out when we go back East," Harty said.
Harty also said that "horses have to be super-fit to compete on synthetic tracks," which may give them an edge when facing horses who have been racing or training solely on dirt.
"We used to see that in the early days of synthetics in California, when Hollywood first put in a synthetic surface, and Santa Anita was still dirt," Harty said. "If you trained at Santa Anita and shipped over to race at Hollywood Park, you would come up short."
Sadler said he applauds the efforts of California-based trainers to ship.
"One thing you can say about California - as a group, we're very game," Sadler said. "We ship around the country. We do get out of here."
Sadler said results show that it is easier for a horse to go from synthetic to dirt than from dirt to synthetic. A variation on that theme will be Line of David, a Sadler-trained 3-year-old who has been training on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita but has made his last two starts on turf. He won both of those races and will get a chance to make his first start on dirt in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.
"If it doesn't work out, we know we've got a really nice turf horse the rest of the year," Sadler said. "With him, it's a little more confusing to predict how he'll do on dirt."
That's because Line of David's improvement coincided with the addition of blinkers, a change in running style to send him to the lead, and a switch to turf following three losses on the main track at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Whether it was one, two, or all three changes that contributed to his improvement, and how he will perform on dirt, are all guesses.
The success California-based horses have had going from synthetic to dirt will be watched most closely in three weeks, when horses such as Sidney's Candy and Lookin At Lucky -- who finished third in the Santa Anita Derby - run in the Kentucky Derby on dirt after having made their final prep race on a synthetic track.
Sidney's Candy will be making his first start on dirt. Should he follow in the footsteps of other 3-year-olds based in California this spring, it's conceivable that he could make another significant leap forward at Churchill Downs.
"I don't like to talk about the upside, but I do think he'll really like dirt," Sadler said.
In other Derby developments:
* Nine horses are entered in each of the two graded stakes for 3-year-olds this weekend: the Arkansas Derby and the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
* Of the 20 horses in Derby Watch this week, seven will be competing. Dublin, Noble's Promise, and Super Saver are in the Arkansas Derby, and four horses - Aikenite, Interactif, Make Music for Me, and Odysseus - are in the Blue Grass.
Welcome back to two old friends. American Lion, the winner of the Illinois Derby, and Jackson Bend, who finished second in the Wood Memorial. Both re-appear among the top 20 of Derby Watch, having made enough graded earnings to put them in the Kentucky Derby field. Both are 30-1 shots on the Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Watchmaker made Eskendereya the solid Derby favorite at 5-2 following his impressive victory in the Wood. Sidney's Candy, the Santa Anita Derby winner, is now the third choice at 8-1 after being 15-1 a week ago.
The unlucky Caracortado, fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, and Pleasant Prince were both dropped from the top 20, strictly because they do not have enough graded stakes earnings to make the prospective Derby field. Awesome Act, 12-1 on Watchmaker's line last week, has floated up to 30-1 after finishing a distant third in the Wood.
ON THE BUBBLE
Pleasant Prince could certainly head right back onto the top 20 of Derby Watch if he picks up enough graded stakes cash on Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Backtalk and Homeboykris have enough graded earnings to go onto the list following this weekend, depending on whether anyone from the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby leapfrogs them. Other than Buddy's Saint and Vale of York, there have been precious few defections -- so far -- among prominent Derby contenders.