11/03/2008 12:00AM

Always prefer a rising star


The argument that 3-year-old Raven's Pass qualified as a standout in the Breeders' Cup Classic might be entered at a number of points, but the overarching factor and the circumstance that begs the question among so many handicappers that were looking the other way has to be the fantastic odds. At 13-1, Raven's Pass went off as nothing short of the season's grandest overlay. Surely the colt won like it.

The predictable flattening of Curlin in the stretch and the rather humble quality of the other American-based runners apart, Raven's Pass represents a textbook model of a high-class 3-year-old who suddenly has matured from adolescence to manhood. The No. 1 ranked challenger of spring and summer finally has emerged as the champion he was destined to be, no longer to be denied.

To appreciate the situation at full force, an analogy to the 3-year-old season of Curlin himself can best tell the tale. During spring and summer of 2007, Curlin performed as one of five superior 3-year-olds. He was beaten eight lengths by Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, Curlin reversed that finish by a desperate head in a final surge in the Preakness at Pimlico.

Three weeks after that, Curlin lost the Belmont Stakes by a nose to a filly, the champion Rags to Riches. On Aug. 5, he next surrendered the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park by 4 1/2 lengths to winner Any Given Saturday and runner-up Hard Spun.

One month later at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup against older handicap horses, Curlin not only won, but also his speed figure zoomed from a couple of lengths above the 3-year-old stakes par to above par for Grade 1 handicap leaders. By Oct. 27 and the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in the slop, Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday could not finish within five lengths of Curlin. Importantly, neither could any of the leading older handicap horses. The Beyer Speed Figure would crest at 119, well beyond the reach of his former peers.

Curlin at 3 was the real-time aspiring colt who had emerged as the true champion, no longer to be denied. He paid 4-1 while running wild that sloppy afternoon, parimutuel evidence too many handicappers had not yet realized what had occurred. Five months later as a young 4-year-old, Curlin would crush the field in the $6 million Dubai World Cup by 7 3/4 lengths. He ran at 2-5 that night.

Now to Raven's Pass and the England summer of 2008. The frustrated Raven's Pass lost three times to division leader Henrythenavigator, first in May by 4 1/2 lengths, next in June by three-quarters of a length, and finally in July by a head. All were Group 1 miles on turf and Raven's Pass recorded Racing Post ratings of 111, 126, and 124. In between, Raven's Pass also lost a Group 1 grass mile to the classy Tamayuz by 1 1/2 lengths with a Racing Post 119+.

By Sept. 27 and the definitive Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, open to older runners, it had turned. Raven's Pass at 3-1 beat heavily favored 6-5 Henrythenavigator by a decisive length. He had won the Group 2 Celebration Mile at Goodwood versus older handicap horses a month earlier at 1-2 with a Racing Post 125. Now Curlin's Racing Post rating would rise to the uppermost 130, the highest rating of the year, shared only by Duke of Marmalade, whose form had declined in the prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

No matter the triumphs of spring and summer, if handicappers wish to understand 3-year-olds on the rungs of the class ladder, they must pay stricter attention to the exploits of fall, the reason Funny Cide could never be crowned and handicappers will never get the true measure of Smarty Jones. The adolescents will be coming to maturity and the men will be separated from the boys. Raven's Pass is a marvelous example of the maturity that sometimes occurs.

As Curlin had been a year ago. That highest expression of Thoroughbred class becomes unmistakable to the practiced eye, as unfortunately so does the inexorable decline. Curlin was not the same individual in the fall of 2008 and no impressive workout on the newly installed Pro-Ride surface can disguise what the competition has revealed. Curlin had been extended to beat the nondescript Past the Point in Saratoga's Grade 1 Woodward and he had been pushed to grind down the front-running Wanderin Boy a month later in a Jockey Club Gold Cup he should have trounced. His Beyer Figures in those two events dropped to 112-111, which means he merely ran to par.

It remained possible but unlikely the paired-figure pattern suggested Curlin might by cycling back to top form. In June at Churchill Downs, he had won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap easily but with a similar Beyer Figure of 110. Following the rebound from the stresses of Dubai, Curlin should have exceeded that performance by fall. He had looked jaded instead. Whenever leading graded-stakes horses have lost more than two lengths repeatedly, the downward curve must be trusted, certainly at miserly odds. If Curlin continues to run, he will be beaten at low odds by the authentic Grade 1 stars like Raven's Pass, although he occasionally might put it all together again and crush a Grade 1 lineup.

The same fate might await the 4-year-old Raven's Pass, or might not. Regardless, the British-based Raven's Pass will be hard pressed to withstand any 3-year-old of high class who suddenly bursts ahead of the competition of fall.

Which begs the question of the 13-1 odds that accompanied Raven's Pass in this season's Classic. The morning line of 6-1 looked a touch generous to begin, so what does it say about the state of the handicapping art when a somewhat inflated line not only is not corrected, but instead doubled plus one? Maybe handicappers have revealed too abiding a tendency to confuse the surface of the track or the distance of the race with the class of the horse. More likely most handicappers suspected the adverse effects of both the surface and the distance, but does that translate to 13-1?

In this context a narrow but important consideration in the past performance tables of Daily Racing Form deserves mention.

In the lifetime statistical box Raven's Pass showed a Tomlinson rating of 284 for the 1 1/4-mile distance of the race. Lee Tomlinson's empirical studies of pedigrees indicate horses having a rating at today's distance of 320 or higher can be expected to win their fair share. A 10-furlong Tomlinson of 284 is obviously weak, but here the devil hides in the details. The Tomlinson scale relies upon a one-generation search that encompasses only the sons and daughters of a horse's sire and broodmare sire. The scale is thereby unfair to new and younger sires whose crops will be few and whose sons-and-daughters' records include still fewer races at 1 1/4 miles.

A few years ago in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager of 24 Kentucky Derby prospects, no fewer than 18 or so showed Tomlinson pedigree ratings significantly shy of the dividing line of 320 for 1 1/4 miles, ala Raven's Pass. When I pressed Tomlinson for an explanation, he swiftly conceded the limitations of the one-generation search, and graciously offered to conduct a three-generation search for any of the prospects I had in mind. The three-generation search altered the ratings for a number of the colts significantly.

Although DRF's Tomlinson ratings can be accepted as reliable when horses stretch out to new distances, as customarily from sprints to routes, they should be considered equally unreliable at 1 1/4 miles or farther. Raven's Pass qualifies as another magnificent exception on the matter, and handicappers may have been misled by the published pedigree ratings, contributing to the amazing 13-1 odds.

In this specialized context too, I digested a hard lesson in the newly run BC Juvenile Turf not to be forgotten in the future. One-two finishers Donativum and Westphalia were stretching out from seven-furlong stakes sprints to the mile and showed unpersuasive Tomlinson ratings for the added distance of 288 and 291, respectively. The North American runners Bittel Road, Grand Adventure, and Skipadate each had completed the final fractions of minor but graded stakes on turf in less than 12 seconds a furlong.

The North American trio enjoyed first run into the stretch too, but none could match strides even for half a furlong with the European juveniles. The winner Donativum had won the restricted Tattersalls Stakes at Newmarket at 33-1 with a Racing Post 99, a listed rating on that scale among 2-year-olds. Westphalia had recorded a Racing Post 112 in the Group 2 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster, a high rating at a major track, but on a soft turf. The pair of imports had run five and six times around one turn only, losing as often as winning, but it made scarcely a difference. The two ran off from the American juveniles on the firm Santa Anita grass. Remember to prefer the European juveniles going around two turns on the turf.

And if a 3-year-old that resembles the rampantly maturing Raven's Pass will be in the gate versus the leading American-based handicap horses in the Classic, and notwithstanding the surface and distance, do not be misled. Take the overlay, with confidence.