11/03/2007 3:06AM

Night of Stars


Imagine a Breeders' Cup with 17 races in under six hours, run at 17 different tracks in four different time zones.

Preposterous? Perhaps, but it starts at 7:10 EST tonight: It's greyhound racing's Night of Stars. If you think I'm making it up, go here for free program pages.

Even aside from the 17 venues and the change of species, it's a lot different from a Breeders' Cup. The hounds aren't shipping around, but racing at their home tracks, each of which puts together a race for the top eight dogs on the grounds. The races are contested only at dogdom's two primary distances: five-sixteenths of a mile (550 yards), a two-turn sprint, and three-eighths of a mile (660 yards). The sport also offers the occasional marathon (770 yards) or super-marathon (990 yards), but not on the Night of Stars.

Nor are they competing for divisional championships. In greyhound racing, males face females and 2-year-olds face 4-year-olds without restriction. Instead of honoring the leaders in various age or gender groups, the sport names the eight best racers in the country at year's end to an All-American Team, while honoring the best sprinter and best router with the Rural Rube and Flashy Sir Awards.

Another huge difference is that these runners are likelier to be making their 60th than their 6th start of the year. Kay V Tatoo Tony, a 2006 All-American running in the 11th NOS race tonight, is already 36-for-63 this year at Orange Park near Jacksonville, Fla. Win It For Me in the eighth will be making his 90th start of the year, all of them at Mardi Gras, which is what they've been calling the old Hollywood Dog Track down the road from Gulfstream since the slots came to town last year.

Handicapping a dog race (go ahead, download a program, give it a try) is a lot like decoding the past performances for a horse race, with an additional premium on early speed and post position. The most successful dogplayers I've met are obsessive note-takers who can predict how a race will unfold into the first turn. Dogs have stronger preferences for running on the inside or outside, and the combination of that preference and post position often determines who will emerge with the early lead.

The nicest thing about the Night of Stars is that a portion of the proceeds goes to greyhound-adoption efforts, and adoption programs are promoted throughout the event. Thoroughbred racing could take a cue from all this. There are two NOS programs each year, yet horse racing does not devote a single day to a national, coordinated effort to raise money and visibility for equine welfare, retirement and placement efforts.

--Okay, back to the ponies. Saturday's stakes fare includes the Cal Cup program at Oak Tree, with Lava Man trying to get back on track in the Cal Cup Classic. The nation's only graded stakes are a trio of races at Aqueduct and Churchill Downs for horses one notch below those who ran in the BC F&M Turf, Dirt Mile and Distaff:

3:52 p.m. EST, Aqueduct race 7: G3 $150k Long Island H., 3+F 1 1/2m-T
Royal Highness is the even-money ML choice and may well go off even shorter in a ragtag field of seven. Winner of the Beverly D. this summer before a dull sixth in Lahudood's Flower Bowl, Royal Highness is one of only two graded stakes-winners in the field. It's such a weak bunch that Miracle Moment, who has never tried a graded race and has failed in four restricted stakes, is 6-1 on the ML. A better choice for second might be one of the British fillies, Dalvina or Rising Cross.

4:34 p.m. EST, Churchill race 9: G3 $200k Ack Ack H., 3+ 1m
Sun King has been running against a different universe of horses from those his seven opponents today have been facing, having run into Curlin, Lawyer Ron and Corinthian in his last four starts. He can win this even if he has lost a step since his '06 campaign, where he ran Invasor to a nose in the Whitney and Silver Train to a head in the Met Mile. His 9-5 ML odds look generous from here. Istan is a perfectly logical ML second choice at 9-5 returning to dirt from a failed grass try, but ML 9-2 Off Duty is very shaky at the distance.

5:02 p.m. EST, Churchill race 10: G2 $150k Chilukki S., 3+F 1m
This might be a more promising spot to shop for a price than the Long Island or Ack Ack. Six of these nine fillies regularly run in the 95-to-101 Beyer range, and there are reasons to doubt the three ML favorites: Rolling Sea (3-1) drew the tricky rail spot and may face early pressure from the outside; Windy (7-2) and Trendy Lady (9-2) are a combined 0-7 in stakes company and face five graded-stakes winners here in their toughest assignment to date. Change Up (6-1), who showed high promise last year and now stretches out in her third start of 2007, is worth a long look, and High Heels (6-1) may be perfectly suited to a one-turn mile.

There are one-day pick-six carryovers of $34,759 at Aqueduct and $16,104 at Churchill, neither of which will attract the $1 million pool Oak Tree is guaranteeing on the Cal Cup card. Oh, and there's a $75,000 pick-six guarantee (only for 6-of-6) on races 8-13 of the Night of Stars.