02/17/2011 4:03PM

Big fields for two grass stakes is good news

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Coincidence, trend, or conspiracy – doesn’t matter. One look at the fields for the two major grass races being run in Florida and California on Saturday is enough to bring hope to the darkest heart.

At Gulfstream, 13 have been entered to run 1 3/8 miles for a purse of $150,000 in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida, named for the male turf champion of 1978.

At Santa Anita, another 13 have been entered to run 1 1/2 miles for a purse of $150,000 in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo, named for the coastal town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You’d like it.

The fact that two almost identical races drew such large fields in the face of today’s so-called horse shortage is a testimony to . . . what exactly?

It’s not because of a lack of quality at the top. Defending champ Bourbon Bay and the upwardly mobile Champ Pegasus lead the San Luis Obispo, and the Mac Diarmida marks the return of Bowling Green winner Al Khali against the stout-hearted McKnight winner, Prince Will I Am, and the tough old German warrior, Musketier.

It’s not as if there is no place else to run, either, at least in the case of the Gulfstream bunch, who have opportunities aplenty at places like Tampa Bay Downs and the Fair Grounds this time of year.

And it is not as if there has been a sudden replenishment of quality American grass horses from some heretofore unacknowledged source, like Australia, or Mars. With the exception of Ace Avila’s Brazilian runner Pode Ir in the San Luis Obispo, every runner has clearly established U.S. form.

The dissolution of the top-class American-based grass horse division has haunted the sport for at least the last decade, perhaps longer. From time to time, a Gio Ponti, an English Channel, or a Kitten’s Joy will break the surface, but for the most part the glory is shared by earnest yet forgettable utility players until the Europeans arrive, first for the Arlington Million and then for keeps in the fall.

The saddest sight of all may have been the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, where Kentucky’s drought conditions rendered the grass course inhospitable to one of the world’s marquee horses, the Epsom Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce.

The scratch of Workforce left the $3 million race ripe for the taking, but the American side was woefully undermanned. Champ Pegasus, having won his maiden race only seven months earlier, was the best the U.S. could do in finishing second to the opportunistic Group 3 runner Dangerous Midge. Remember Dangerous Midge? Me neither.

It is far too early to hope that American-based grass runners will provide quality entertainment throughout the long season, but Saturday is a promising start. The Florida runners could do worse than emulate the colt for whom their race is named – Mac Diarmida won 12 of 14 starts as a 3-year-old in 1978, ending his run with victories in the Canadian International Championship and the Washington, D.C., International, defeating Tiller and Waya, among other cracks.

Out West, it can be argued that neither Bourbon Bay nor Champ Pegasus, one-two in the recent San Marcos, remember what it’s like to run an ordinary race. Their combined record since January 2010 stands at 15 starts, nine wins, four seconds, and two thirds.

But the 1 1/2 miles affords plenty of time for mischief and bad luck, and more than one running has come down to a ferocious 100-yard sprint through the stretch. Gambling economics require some horses to be tossed, but where do you start?

Instincts might point to Juniper Pass, who has yet to win a stakes in nine starts. His trainer, Ray Bell, has another race circled if it goes. On top of that, with rain in the forecast, the San Luis Obispo might even come off the turf. Such a prospect triggered a pleasant memory for Bell, a third generation horseman who carries the official handle Thomas R. Bell III.

“In 1980 I was my dad’s assistant,” Bell said, “and we won the San Luis Obispo when it was run on the main track with a pretty nice horse named Silver Eagle. He holds the distinction of beating John Henry the first time John ran in California.”

Juniper Pass, owned by Robert and Betty Irvin, has a ways to go before he can even be mentioned in the same paragraph with such horses. But one thing is clear: The son of Lemon Drop Kid, out of a mare by Coronado’s Quest, loves a distance of ground.

“Everything about him said that,” Bell said. “He finally got a mile and a quarter race at Hollywood last fall and managed to win. It wasn’t top company, but then he came right back and almost got all the money going a mile and a quarter again in the Hollywood Derby.”

For the record, Juniper Pass was third in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, beaten a neck by Haimish Hy, who is among the cast for the San Luis Obispo.

“It’s pretty clear that Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus are the two best turf horses out here, if not in the country,” Bell said. “It’s a tall order throwing my little horse in there against them. But past them it’s wide open, if we go. And with a big field you always seem to get a fair pace to run at.

“I may have taken it a little too easy on him after the Hollywood Derby,” Bell said, referring to his colt’s modest fifth in a Jan. 17 allowance race. “But I knew I wanted to run him several times at Santa Anita, with all the distance races available. He’s the kind of horse who’s going to give us some fun along the way.”