Updated on 09/17/2011 11:17AM

Birdstone sparks early Derby hopes


NEW YORK - The Hopeful Stakes, first run 100 years ago, is not just a race, but also a state of mind. It is early enough in each colt's career that his handlers can still be hopeful about winning a blanket of roses eight months hence, and fans can be hopeful that they have found a horse to dream and care about for the next year.

The reality, though, is that the disconnect between 2-year-old accomplishments and classic success at 3 has grown so wide that it's almost hopeless to hitch your Derby wagon to a Hopeful star. Just as you have to go back to Affirmed in 1978 to find our last Triple Crown winner, you have to go back to Affirmed in 1977 to find the last Hopeful winner to succeed the next year in the Derby.

It's not as if there haven't been plenty of nice, fast winners since then, including Chief's Crown, Gulch, Summer Squall, Dehere, Hennessy, Smoke Glacken, Favorite Trick, and Came Home. The way the game is played today, though, it's likelier that the 2004 Derby winner has yet to make his debut than that he's in the entries for Saturday's renewal at Saratoga.

If there is an exception to that trend this year, it is probably Birdstone, who to these eyes was the most exciting 2-year-old winner of the Saratoga meet. The Grindstone colt, a Marylou Whitney homebred and a half-brother to Kentucky Oaks and Acorn winner Bird Town, made his debut on Whitney Day, Aug. 2. The Nick Zito trainee raced as though he had been doing it for years, advancing steadily through a half-mile of 45.99 seconds and then running straight and sensibly through the stretch while amassing a 12 1/2-length margin and stopping the timer in 1:10.32, looking like a very serious racehorse.

Chapel Royal, undefeated for Todd Pletcher, has more speed, has run faster, and deserves to be the Hopeful favorite. The gut feeling here, though, is that Birdstone will catch up to him sometime soon, if not quite as soon as Saturday.

Rankings need dose of reality

The Hopeful is the first Grade 1 stakes for this year's juveniles, so whoever wins it will become the nominal leader of the 2-year-olds and is sure to top the inaugural World Thoroughbred Rankings in the division the following week. An international committee set up by the Breeders' Cup has been issuing the rankings each week in the six Cup divisions for older horses, but the list often seems to have a tenuous relationship with reality.

The committee's rankings are flawed in two regards: They are far too kind to European runners and far too rigid in focusing on Grade 1 races, frequently overestimating their significance.

In the Classic division, for example, Moon Ballad sat atop the list for months off his Dubai World Cup triumph, even when he lost two subsequent starts and it became clear that a single home-court victory over Harlan's Holiday did not make him the world's finest dirt horse. This past week's rankings finally anointed a new American leader, but it's unclear why Candy Ride (126) is suddenly rated two pounds better than Mineshaft (124).

In the Turf group, Alamshar tops the list by five pounds, which might be fair within this division, but why is he ranked at 131 pounds while America's best dirt horses are at 124 to 126? His lofty impost is a typically haughty Eurocentric slap at American racing. Next on the Turf at 126 comes Sulamani, who for some reason is rated three pounds above Storming Home, who finished in front of him in the Arlington Million.

The European handicappers thoroughly reveal their ignorance of American racing in the sprint division. Any American handicapper asked to name the top sprinters in this country could go 30 deep without considering either House Party or Shine Again, two nice Allen Jerkens-trained fillies who are astoundingly listed in a tie for ninth among the world's best sprinters - a list that does not even include Congaree.

Why are they there? Solely because House Party won the Grade 1 Prioress, an iffy Grade 1 event restricted to 3-year-old fillies, and because Shine Again was narrowly beaten as the co-topweight in the Grade 1 Ballerina. House Party can't hold a candle to fellow 3-year-old filly Lady Tak, whose Test victory was obviously the best sprint performance by an American filly this year. Lady Tak is not even on the list.

These dopey rankings wouldn't matter except that they are, in the Breeders' Cup's words, "part of the criteria used to determine horses' qualifications to participate in the World Thoroughbred Champion-ships." Let's hope not.