By BETH HARRIS
AP Sports Writer
Four horses have run just two prep races. Four others are coming in off long layoffs. And some didn't even race as 2-year-olds. Conventional wisdom is out the window at this year's Kentucky Derby, a wide-open affair that could produce a winner whose trainer might just break all the unspoken rules.
Barbaro came into Churchill Downs last year and romped to a 6½-length victory, becoming the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win after more than four weeks off.
"Last year I was the most unorthodox trainer there was and now this year all these people look like geniuses because they're taking five, six and seven weeks off between the races," Michael Matz said. "When I did it, it was voodoo."
Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay is set to run in next Saturday's Kentucky Derby off an eight-week break.
"I don't believe that will be any excuse," trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Concerned about Circular Quay's habit of dropping far back, Pletcher believed another hard race too close to the Derby would cause the colt to get lazy in the early going of the 1¼-mile race.
"By being a fresher horse, he'll lay a little closer to the pace," he said.
Circular Quay could be joined by such well-rested rivals as Hard Spun (six weeks), Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy (five weeks), Matz's horse, Chelokee (five weeks) and three-week vacationers Curlin and Zanjero.
Pletcher, who also trains Scat Daddy, says many of his horses run better with more time between races. The nation's leading trainer plans to send out a record-tying five Derby starters in pursuit of his first victory.
"I just don't see why that wouldn't apply to the Kentucky Derby," Pletcher said. "I know you can take all the historical facts and stats and all that, but if I do that, I'm kind of ignoring the most important data and that's on the ones I train."
Curlin is 3-for-3 this year, but was unraced as a 2-year-old, which defies long-held beliefs that young horses need all the experience they can get before trying the Derby. His wins include the Arkansas Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen.
"They're yelling Steve Asmussen's horse doesn't have enough experience, but he looks like a pretty nice horse to me," Matz said.
Pletcher agreed after seeing Curlin in training on the synthetic track at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
"He's won by lengthy margins and he's just a very impressive looking horse," Pletcher said. "He's sort of bucking some historical trends, but he's the one horse out there that sort of separated himself from the ones that he's run against."
John Shirreffs, who trained 2005 Derby winner Giacomo, brings that horse's half brother, Tiago, into this year's race. Tiago ran once as a 2-year-old, which Shirreffs believes was beneficial.
"The more experience they can get at running and being in different situations, the more it's going to help them later on," he said. "Going into the Derby in a 20-horse field, there's a lot of things that happen and you want to have the horse able to handle a lot of situations."
Circular Quay and Scat Daddy also both ran as 2-year-olds, giving them what Pletcher calls "a tremendous amount of seasoning."
"They've kind of been in a lot of different situations that would maybe prepare a horse mentally for whatever you can throw at them on Derby day," he said. "Traffic and getting bumped around a little bit and dirt in your face and all those things. That's an X factor when you go into the Derby with maybe a horse that hasn't had a lot of that."
Circular Quay, Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense, Great Hunter and Blue Grass winner Dominican are set to run in the Derby off just two prep races. Tradition calls for at least three.
The last Derby winner with two preps as a 3-year-old was Sunny's Halo in 1983; before that it was Jet Pilot in 1947.
For the first time, some of this year's potential Derby trainers are working their horses on synthetic surfaces, even though the Run for the Roses is on traditional dirt.
Four of Pletcher's five candidates, along with Doug O'Neill's trio of Great Hunter, Liquidity and Cobalt Blue, will complete their pre-race workouts on Keeneland's artificial surface made of wax-coated sand, synthetic fibers and recycled rubber.
Pletcher won't head to Louisville until Tuesday, although he sent Sam P. ahead so the excitable colt could get used to the atmosphere.
"We're still trying to adjust and learn more about it," Pletcher said of the new surface.
If it's rainy, and it often is during Derby week, horses don't need to wait for synthetic surfaces to dry out as they do with dirt, allowing for extra training time.
Curlin and stablemate Zanjero turned in impressive workouts at Keeneland, and critics will be comparing those with their pre-Derby trips over Churchill's dirt.
Carl Nafzger, who won the 1990 Derby with Unbridled and trains Street Sense at Churchill, believes it's too early to know how the transition from synthetic to dirt will affect the Derby.
"I suppose if some horse is trained on it wins (the Derby), they'll all say, `Oh, big deal,"' he said. "But if I win it, they'll say, `Well, see, they shouldn't have trained on Polytrack, they should have been at Churchill."'