05/29/2008 12:00AM

Big day on both coasts for milers


PHOENIX - The upcoming Belmont Stakes has long been tagged the Test of the Champion.

I respectfully disagree. This isn't to denigrate the Belmont in any way. It's certainly a championship test for staying 3-year-olds, much as a six-furlong race is a championship test for sprinters. But in my mind, the test of the champion comes at a mile, regardless of surface.

Success at a mile at the highest level requires the fullest arsenal. You need speed. You need tactical speed. You need sustained speed. You need ability and nimbleness. You need to have instant acceleration. You need the stamina to maintain that speed and or acceleration. You need heart. Speed horses must, as UCLA coach John Wooden famously said to his basketball players, "Be quick but don't hurry."

Which is why this holiday weekend, and specifically Monday, is one of my favorite times of year. That's because two of the game's premier events at a mile, Belmont's Grade 1 Met Mile and Hollywood's Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile, take center stage. It's no surprise both fields are chock full of quality horses looking to have their name etched alongside some of the game's immortals.

Met Mile

I wrote a few weeks ago that trainer Kiaran McLaughlin appeared to have this race right in his sights with the comebacking Daaher, so impressive winning last fall's Grade 1 Cigar Mile. Alas, Daaher wasn't the same horse this year. He got hurt and subsequently was retired.

But it's a strange game and oddly enough McLaughlin finds himself with an able replacement. Divine Park was always cut out to be a top-class one-turn horse. As with Daaher, things sort of went south for him this past winter. But Divine Park is back on the beam. He won Belmont's opening-day Westchester a few weeks ago in devastating fashion. He has speed so he can get position, but he's no speed-crazy sprinter stretching out to a mile. In fact, it's a lethal combination: speed and the ability to finish.

Best of all, he could fall into a dream trip. Everyone knows what Commentator does so well. He's a naturally fast galloper and surely he will go fast. But even with the late news that California speedster Monterey Jazz is hurt and won't go, there are others who likely will press Commentator early. That could leave him ripe for the plucking for Divine Park, should he repeat that super Westchester performance.

Shoemaker Mile

If Ever a Friend can duplicate his Grade 1 Kilroe Mile performance then odds are everyone else is running for second. And from all reports, the horse is doing great, as evidenced by a bullet 1:11.40 six-furlong work at Hollywood last Monday. Trainer Mike Mitchell was pleased with the work and said, "He's going to run his best race."


On the other hand, this isn't Santa Anita, where the Kilroe Mile was run. In his only try on the Hollywood turf, a sprint last Dec. 6, Ever a Friend finished third. Of course, that was the day Mitchell claimed him for $62,500 and he has been a brand-new horse since.

There is no such concern about the stage for Daytona. Dan Hendricks has done a marvelous job with the 4-year-old gelding. Daytona came into his own, beginning last fall. He won the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby, the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, the Grade 2 San Gabriel at Santa Anita, and then the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap. He finished third behind top-class Proudinsky in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz at Fair Grounds, but caught yielding turf that day and actually ran very well. He came back west and led all the way to win the Grade 2 Arcadia at Santa Anita at this same mile trip.

Daytona is going to be up on the pace, with Ever a Friend likely stalking. Ever a Friend figures to come at him turning for home - the pace scenario and how much Daytona has left for the last furlong will almost surely be the determining factor here.

If for some reason, however, Daytona can't finish it off with the same power or Ever a Friend doesn't blast home as he did in the Kilroe Mile, then Hyperbaric is worthy of a long look at a price. He sat back in the Arcadia while Daytona dictated things. He then powered home and gave Daytona all he could handle, finishing second, beaten just a neck. That was only his second start back after 14 months on the bench. It was a huge effort and trainer Julio Canani knows a thing or two about top turf milers (Silic, Special Ring, Ladies Din, Tuzla). If Hyperbaric is ready to move forward, look out. By the way, Hyperbaric's only previous try on this course, way back in 2006, was at a mile. He won.