08/14/2011 12:27PM

Saturday Stakes Review

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If there is a better turf horse to have raced in North America this year than Cape Blanco, I’d really like to know who it could possibly be.

This is no great scoop. Cape Blanco shot to the top of the male turf division last month, immediately after his U.S. debut, when he was a much-the-best winner of the Man o’ War. But Cape Blanco certainly tightened his grip on his division with his convincing score in Saturday’s Arlington Million.

When Cape Blanco won the Man o’ War, he did so despite blowing a shoe and drifting out considerably through the stretch run. Yet his score Saturday was a better performance, even if it lacked all that drama. The thing that was just so impressive about it was the way Cape Blanco ended all the suspense with his quick move to the lead in upper stretch, in the process making the concerns I had about his back and forth travel schedule between his home base in Ireland and this country seem downright silly. The Arlington Million is a great, international race, and as such, it’s not supposed to be so easily won. But with his move on the far turn into the stretch, Cape Blanco settled this Million quickly and easily.

Gio Ponti, who finished second to Cape Blanco in the Million just as he did in the Man o’ War, deserves a compliment for his good try. Compromised for having to come from farther off than slow pace than Cape Blanco did, and bottled up behind horses on the inside when he wanted to go, Gio Ponti nevertheless finished gamely, all on the sort of yielding footing his connections have tried to avoid with him. I still believe that at this stage of his career, Gio Ponti is most effective as a miler. But he beat everyone else he was lined up against Saturday, so I suppose he could still get the job done at a middle distance, if the situation is right.

Speaking of pace, the Million’s pace was so different than the pace in the Secretariat Stakes run at the same 10 furlong distance an hour earlier that it makes a direct comparison of the final times of the two races (the Million’s final time was 2:05.39, the Secretariat, restricted to 3-year-olds, went in 2:03.91) virtually impossible. The first two fractions of these races were comparable enough; the Million’s opening quarter and half went in 24.81 and 50.26 as compared to 25.43 and 50.09 for the Secretariat. But while the Secretariat’s pace continued on at a relatively steady clip with six furlongs in 1:14.64 and a mile in 1:39.92, the Million slowed down substantially through the third quarter, with its six furlongs going in 1:16.04.

The Million’s third quarter in 25.78 as compared to the Secretariat’s third quarter in 24.55 meant that there was no way the Million runners could run fast enough late to match the final time of the Secretariat. Sure enough, even though the Million’s mile fraction was 1:41.50, the Million’s fourth quarter was actually comparable to the Secretariat’s, 25.46 to 25.28. And the Million’s fifth and final quarter mile was actually slightly faster than the Secretariat’s, 23.89 to 23.99.

What all this tells me, beyond the fact that it’s not a good idea to make direct comparisons between the final times of the Million and Secretariat, is this: I suspect that Mission Approved, who gave way after setting that easy Million pace on his adored off footing, might have finally had his bubble burst. And Treasure Beach and Ziyarid, who ran one-two in the Secretariat after running two-one around the track, ran better races than people are liable to give them credit for.

As for Saturday’s other big race at Arlington, the Beverly D., Stacelita was a decisive winner, as expected. Stacelita’s victory Saturday combined with her excellent third against males last month in the United Nations in her U. S. debut makes her one of, if not the leading female turf horse to have raced on these shores so far this year. But as much as I would like to gush about Stacelita, and as much as she might deserve it, I can’t. And that is because her rail run from close range in the Beverly D. was one of the easiest trips you will ever see a horse have.

Finally, a word about Saturday’s controversial Sword Dancer at Saratoga. There was certainly no controversy about who the best horse in the Sword Dancer was. Winchester regained his Grade 1-level form of last year in his second start this season, and overwhelmed his field with a big late run to score a lot more convincingly that his three-quarters of a length win margin would suggest.

The controversy has to do with the way Winchester came in during the course of his big stretch run and bothered third-place finisher Al Khali. These are the questions I asked myself right after the horses flashed under the wire in the Sword Dancer:

Was Winchester the best horse? Absolutely. No question about it.

Would Winchester have won if he kept a straight course? Absolutely. No doubt about it.

Did Winchester bothering Al Khali cost Al Khali a bigger piece of the purse?

This is the key question. I don’t care if Winchester was 10 miles the best in the Sword Dancer. If Winchester coming over and bothering Al Khali cost Al Khali a larger share of the purse, in this case, second money – second money of $100,000 in the Sword Dancer was twice as much as the third place share of the pot – then Winchester should have been disqualified. To me, this – whether a horse does something during the running of a race that costs another horse a larger piece of the purse – is the fairest and best way to adjudicate potential disqualifications. In this instance, I am confident that whatever Winchester did to Al Khali, it did not cost Al Khali a larger share of the purse, and that the stewards made the right decision in letting the result stand as is.

And it could easily be 10 years before you see me agree with another stewards decision.