10/01/2009 12:00AM

Big day may mean little to Cup races


NEW YORK - For most of the last 25 years, the Saturday that Belmont Park presented the Jockey Club Gold Cup and several other major stakes was billed and known as "Breeders' Cup Preview Day." There was a Grade 1 race that corresponded to each of the biggest Breeders' Cup events, and the Belmont races produced most of the favorites and many of the winners of the Cup races.

It was only two years ago that the winners of the Belmont races dominated the Breeders' Cup. Seven of the eight Cup races run on Oct. 27, 2007, at Monmouth were won by horses who had made their last start in New York. (The lone exception was New York-based Kip Deville, who had his final prep in Canada.) Six of them proceeded directly from winning a Grade 1 prep in New York to a Cup victory and an Eclipse Award: War Pass (Champagne/Juvenile), Indian Blessing (Frizette/Juvenile Fillies), Midnight Lute (Forego/Sprint), Lahudood (Flower Bowl/Filly and Mare Turf), English Channel (Turf Classic/Turf), and Curlin (Gold Cup/Classic).

Last year, things could not have been more different. The horses who won the five Grade 1 stakes that will be run at Belmont on Saturday were 0 for 5 at Santa Anita, with four of them finishing off the board. Dynaforce (Flower Bowl) was eighth in the Filly and Mare Turf; Cocoa Beach (Beldame) was second in the Ladies' Classic; Black Seventeen (Vosburgh) was seventh in the Sprint; Grand Couturier (Turf Classic) was 11th and last in the Turf; and Curlin (Gold Cup) was fourth at 9-10 in the Classic.

So it's no surprise that with the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita again this year, neither Belmont nor anyone else is calling Saturday's card "Breeders' Cup Preview Day." The New York Racing Association is instead advertising the card as "Super Saturday," resurrecting a moniker that used to be used for the September card that was a preview of Preview Day.

It's a wise choice. The Gold Cup card features several stars of the game and has plenty of sporting and parimutuel appeal. Prospects are only slightly better than a year ago, however, for very much correspondence between the Belmont races and the Cup events five weeks later, despite the presence of several divisional leaders on Saturday's card.

Summer Bird has to be considered the pro-tem head of the 3-year-old males, with victories in the Belmont Stakes and Travers, and a victory in the Gold Cup would give him three Grade 1 route victories in a year when no other colt or gelding in the sophomore class has won more than one. If he wins, though, he is uncertain even to contest the BC Classic, because he trained poorly on synthetic surfaces earlier in his career. He could skip the race and still end up as the 3-year-old champion unless Mine That Bird were to win the Classic. Mine That Bird, who is 1 for 6 this year, probably needs a Classic victory to win a divisional championship.

Summer Bird's two principal Gold Cup rivals, the 4-year-old Macho Again and the 3-year-old Quality Road, also are highly uncertain prospects for a Classic run over a synthetic track. Quality Road has never tried the stuff, and Macho Again has a pair of dismal finishes in two Polytrack tries early in his career.

The Beldame failed to attract any of the top contenders for the Ladies' Classic. Icon Project would have been strongly favored but is headed for the Spinster to get a synthetic-track prep.

The two Vosburgh favorites are contenders for the title of champion sprinter, but both floundered over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride a year ago: Fabulous Strike was fifth in the Sprint, and Munnings was 10th in the Juvenile. Fabulous Strike's trainer, Todd Beattie, is unenthused about a return visit and might pass even if he wins the Vosburgh. His hopes for a sprinting Eclipse would then rest on rooting against the synthetic specialist Zensational in the Sprint.

So by the end of the day Saturday, Summer Bird, Macho Again, and Fabulous Strike could be at the top of their divisions but also be highly doubtful even to run in the Cup.

The most interesting decision after Saturday may surround Gio Ponti, unquestionably the leader of America's grass horses with four Grade 1 victories already under his girth this year. He has won from eight to 11 furlongs this year, and the question Saturday in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic will be how well he handles 12 furlongs, the distance of the BC Turf. If he thrives, the Turf would be the logical next step, but if there is anything shaky about his performance, it might make more sense to take a shot in the Classic instead of setting him up to be exposed against serious 12-furlong European grass horses such as Conduit in the Turf.

The name fits the event at Belmont on Saturday: It should be a superb Saturday of racing - it just may not be much of a Breeders' Cup Preview.