09/07/2008 11:00PM

Belmont slop may have yielded gem


NEW YORK - Unfortunately, Saturday's Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park was one of those races that is difficult to draw concrete conclusions from. This certainly was not the fault of Tough Tiz's Sis. She did her part by winning by a double-digit margin. Instead, blame Mother Nature, or more specifically Tropical Storm Hanna. The storm announced its arrival in the New York area shortly before the Ruffian with a downpour that rendered Belmont's main track a sea of slop. When conditions are like that, it is hard to know with any degree of confidence if the race was won because one horse handled the going and the rest didn't.

That said, it is still impossible not to come away from the Ruffian thinking this: If Tough Tiz's Sis can win the way she did, what does it make Zenyatta?

The question of how good Zenyatta is has already been asked this year. After building a fan club winning the first three starts of her career, Zenyatta went to establish herself on a national stage in April in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, in which she would meet the 2007 older female champion, Ginger Punch. Zenyatta drilled Ginger Punch by eight lengths at Oaklawn. And while Zenyatta has since extended her undefeated streak to seven with three additional graded stakes victories, the real meaning of what she did at Oaklawn can be found here: Ginger Punch, a champion before the Apple Blossom, has performed every bit like a champ since with four graded stakes victories, three of them Grade 1's, one accomplished despite a terrible trip, and another at a 1 1/4 mile-distance likely beyond her scope.

It is one thing when one horse (Ginger Punch) goes on to flatter another (Zenyatta). Certainly, this type of validation takes on added weight when the horses you're dealing with are of championship caliber. But it's immensely more impressive when an entirely different horse comes along to add a whole new layer of flattery. That's where Tough Tiz's Sis comes in.

Going into the Ruffian, Tough Tiz's Sis had won 2 of 6 starts this season. But of her four defeats on the year, three came to none other than Zenyatta. Tough Tiz's Sis finished second, less than two lengths behind her, in the Grade 2 El Encino in January. She gave Zenyatta the biggest scare of her career when beaten just a length after stretch trouble in the Grade 1 Vanity in July. Then she was a soundly beaten third behind her in last month's Clement L. Hirsch Handicap.

As well as Tough Tiz's Sis has run against Zenyatta, it is clear that Zenyatta has her number, which is certainly no disgrace. The point is, for Tough Tiz's Sis to come east and win a race like the Ruffian by more than 12 lengths makes you shake your head in wonder at what kind of horse Zenyatta must be, especially after what Ginger Punch has accomplished recently.

While the sloppy track in the Ruffian may have had a hand in enhancing her performance, it should be noted that until Saturday Tough Tiz's Sis was certainly not known as a wet-track specialist. In fact, of the four times she had finished worse than third in 19 career starts, three came in her only attempts over a wet track, and her career wet-track best Beyer Speed Figure was a measly 77. Saturday's effort soared to a 113.

Granted, the field in the Ruffian wasn't stellar, which, it could be argued, also could have contributed to making Tough Tiz's Sis look much better than she really is. But the Ruffian field wasn't nearly so bad that it was unrepresentative of East Coast form. Spring Waltz, who wound up sixth as the favorite, came off a decent fourth to Hystericalady in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap after a four-month layoff and was a dominating winner in Gulfstream's Grade 2 Rampart Handicap two starts back. Runner-up Copper State, who has improved dramatically since moving into Steve Asmussen's barn, was coming off a close second in Ginger Punch's tough-trip Grade 1 Go for Wand win. And Little Belle went into the Ruffian off a win in the Grade 1 Ashland, a second in the slop in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, a second in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, and a third in the Grade 1 Alabama. So she not only represented a measure of East Coast form, but also a measure of 3-year-old form versus older female form. Little Belle finished seventh of eight.

I'm taking the Ruffian as indication that Tough Tiz's Sis is a pretty good horse. And if she's good, words might fall short of describing what Zenyatta is.

Woodbine results puzzling

It was also hard to know for sure how big a role yielding footing had in Sunday's three big turf stakes at Woodbine. But given the fact that Kip Deville, the 1-2 favorite in the Woodbine Mile, Forever Together, the 4-5 favorite in the Canadian, and Better Talk Now, the 3-1 second choice in the Northern Dancer Turf, all floundered to varying degrees suggests, in view of their sharp recent form and past successes on off going elsewhere, that footing might have been an issue. That's too bad, because in the cases of Kip Deville and Forever Together, Sunday's races might have been their final Breeders' Cup preps.