LOUISVILLE, Ky. — LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --The pre-race buzz all seems to surround the aptly named Big Brown. The hype has infected everyone, even Churchill Downs' oddsmaker, Mike Battaglia, who essentially admitted that despite the horse's lousy post position, the confidence and bluster from his camp boosted the morning-line odds.
Here's what I keep thinking about, though: The brash entourage that surrounds Big Brown's barn didn't know what they had. It wasn't until relatively recently they realized a winning lottery ticket might've blown into their stable.
Over in Barn 41 at Churchill Downs, Eoin Harty knew he had a Kentucky Derby horse the second he laid eyes on Colonel John. That was never in question, and many still expect Colonel John to be one of the first across the finish line.
But what's making bettors and horsemen alike scratch their heads is the surface Colonel John has been racing on. The dirt-vs.-synthetic track debate has intensified, splitting the racing community and turning tomorrow's Derby -- and this year's entire Triple Crown series -- into an interesting test case.
"It's a process we're all kind of learning as we go along," says trainer Todd Pletcher, whose two Derby entrants, Monba and Cowboy Cal, earned their way here on synthetic tracks. "And what we're finding is that there's a lot that we don't know about it.'"
With more horses boasting synthetic-track wins on their prep-race resumes, tomorrow's 20-horse showdown could go a long way toward supporting or debunking theories surrounding the debate.
While tracks in Maryland, New York and Florida still boast traditional dirt surfaces, others -- Arlington Park, Keeneland and recently Santa Anita -- have switched to a synthetic surface, essentially a mixture of silica sand, synthetic fibers, elastic fiber and granulated rubber. (Such a surface has also been installed on a training track at Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton.)
The softer track is intended to provide more cushion for horse and jockey. But listening to some trainers, you'd think their horseshoes had been replaced with roller skates. Nothing about the surface feels right, they say. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito decried it as "made from my attic," comparing the texture to fluffy insulation. And Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, says the synthetic track might be better for horses' bones, but he's not certain about their ligaments.
"I certainly wouldn't want them to make Polytrack in New York and where we're at," he says. "It just doesn't seem natural. You run them on dirt, you run them on grass. I don't know what all this Polytrack's about."
Pletcher says he likes the way his horses have been training on a synthetic surface. They've been eating, he says, they've had good demeanor and they seem to bounce back from races quicker. While everyone is clearly learning as he goes, the track surface does seem like a convenient excuse.
"I think that's the way everyone's going to look at Polytrack -- if you have a good race over it and your horse runs well, you're happy," Pletcher says, "and if your horse runs bad, maybe that's the excuse."
Though there are several horses in tomorrow's field who are jumping from synthetic to dirt, perhaps none enters the gate under a bigger question mark than Colonel John.
He has the experience, a big win at Santa Anita and a trainer who has won the Derby (Harty was Bob Baffert's top assistant and had his fingerprints all over Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997 and '98). But even when Big Brown was slotted in the 20 post, where no horse has won since 1929, Colonel John never got a whiff as the favorite here.
Though Harty's horse will have to adjust to the sounds of beating hooves and the sight of dirt flying in every direction, the trainer says his only concern in switching surfaces is if rain creates some mud tomorrow.
But what he has never doubted is his horse.
Technically, Harty is a Derby rookie this year. The Dublin, Ireland, native went out on his own in 2000. Though the work might be the same, he knows the stakes are somewhat different.
"I'm going to be a hero or a zero," he said. "It's my name on the program, and the results are going to hang on my head, one way or the other. Before, I was in the background and no matter what happened, I didn't have to take the fall for it."
Colonel John's entire career has taken place at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood. All of the Southern California tracks feature synthetic surfaces now, so how Colonel John fares tomorrow could affect how owners and trainers prep their horses heading into future Triple Crown series.
On the surface, Colonel John could be poised for roses. On the surface, he has it all. And on the surface, he appears every bit the champion that Big Brown seems to be.
But it's the surface that no one is certain about.