By Noel Michaels

Noel is chief handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier OTB wagering facility, and director of Personnel for Nassau OTB. He was a long time racetrack correspondent and online Editor for the Daily Racing Form. He's also the best-selling author of many best-selling handicapping books, including , The Players Angle Almanac, Winning Angles A to Z,The Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press) and Noel's latest: Handicapping The Big Winter Meets.

Saturday's running of the G3-Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn is not only one of many important prep races leading up to this year's Triple Crown races, but it is also a noteworthy microcosm signifying how the California road to the Triple Crown has grown increasingly irrelevant in the years since the California tracks, and particularly Santa Anita, went over to the synthetic track "dark side" for its Derby preps back in 2008.

We are still more than two months out from the 2010 Kentucky Derby, which is scheduled for Saturday, May 1, and already three West Coast Derby contenders have already flown the coup out of state in order to test their ability on a traditional dirt track. At this rate, it is questionable whether any serious Derby contenders will remain, or should remain, home in Southern California long enough to run in Calirornia's top Derby prep race - the Santa Anita Derby - by the time that race finally rolls around on April 3.

For now, it is the 1-2-3 finishers from the Jan. 16 San Rafael Stakes, Conveyance, Cardiff Giant, and Domination, who have left California behind in search of a dirt track Kentucky Derby prep - all choosing Saturday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn instead of the next SoCal Derby prep race.  As the date of the Derby draws nearer, who knows how many more SoCal hopefuls will jump ship and head East for a pre-Derby prep race in the next couple months?

The mass exodus of top finishers from the San Raphael seems a little drastic, but it is certainly not surprising judging by the results of the Triple Crown races the past three years, which have seen no SoCal Derby winners and only one SoCal horse - Pioneerof the Nile in 2009 - even make a dent in the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May.  This recent trend is much more than a short-term statistical anomaly, but rather, it is a sign of the times in Thoroughbred racing where trainers, handicappers, and racing fans really cannot get a true and reliable gauge of a horse's Triple Crown hopes as long they stay on synthetic surfaces out West.  As a matter of fact, I believe the real anomaly is 180 degrees to the contrary, I believe Pioneerof the Nile's good effort was the anomaly - not the half-dozen or so horses who've exited SoCal preps on their ways to Derby disappointments the last couple of years.

After Saturday, we will begin to know where Conveyance, Cardiff Giant, and Domination really stand in terms of this year's hunt for the Kentucky Derby, but several others still remain behind in Southern California - at least for now - without a dirt track test to help interested onlookers - including their own connections -learn what their horses' Kentucky Derby chances are, realistically.

Beware of backing the following SoCal Kentucky Derby hopefuls . . . at least for now:

Southern California Kentucky Derby Hopefuls Without a Dirt Prep, to Date
American Lion
Concord Point
Dave in Dixie
Lookin At Lucky
Make Music for Me
Noble's Promise

The next big stop on the California Kentucky Derby trail is the G2-San Felipe Stakes on March 13, and it will be interesting to see which of the SoCal Derby hopefuls stays on the California path at least that long. After that it is the Santa Anita Derby during the last round of preps on the weekend of April 3 that will be the last major SoCal prep race on the road to the Triple Crown. If a horse hasn't gotten off the Santa Anita Pro-Ride by then, it's probable that he won't get one single dirt Derby prep race prior to the First Saturday in May.

That brings us back to the recent Kentucky Derby results for SoCal runners, and the aforementioned Pioneerof the Nile, who actually parlayed his Pro-Ride Santa Anita prep races into a solid second-place Derby finish at Churchill Downs. Pioneerof the Nile's Kentucky Derby effort was more the exception than the rule in the last two years. Pioneerof the Nile was amongst the stronger SoCal Kentucky Derby aspirants to come along in quite some time, having won four races in a row heading into Louisville and sweeping Santa Anita's key 3-year-old prep races along the way. If you are going to hitch your wagon to a California horse in the Kentucky Derby this year, make sure you demand nothing less from your selection (in other words. . . no Giacomos for you!).

Please see the chart below for a rundown of what the other recent SoCal Kentucky Derby hopefuls results were on the First Saturday in May:



Final SoCal prep

Dirt prep?

Ky. Derby finish

Pioneerof the Nile


Won SA Derby



Mr. Hot Stuff


3rd in SA Derby



Chocolate Candy


2nd in SA Derby



Colonel John


Won SA Derby



Bob Black Jack


2nd SA Derby



And so, as we approach the 2010 Kentucky Derby and as we keep our eyes out West for the top contender or contenders to emerge from Santa Anita, horseplayers should demand at least 1 of 2 things from their Kentucky derby hopefuls; 1) Get out of California early for at least one dirt track prep race, and/or 2) Look for a horse head and shoulders better than the rest who can sweep the major SoCal preps from here on out.

As for this weekend's race in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, Conveyance, Cardiff Giant, and Domination all got the right idea - for now.  They've all performed well to date on artificial tracks. Now let's see how they do on dirt.



Today’s Hot Plays