08/05/2009 11:00PM

Compelling stories on big day of Grade 1 races


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There are six Grade 1 races from coast to coast Saturday: the Test and Whitney at Saratoga; the Arlington Million, Beverly D., and Secretariat at Arlington Park; and the Bing Crosby at Del Mar. That six-pack constitutes the most Grade 1 races run on a single day so far this year.

There were five on April 4 (Apple Blossom, Ashland, Carter, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial) and June 6 (Acorn, Belmont, Just a Game, Manhattan, and Whittingham), and the only more plentiful Grade 1 day is the big Breeders' Cup prep afternoon of Oct. 10. (Breeders' Cup Saturday itself on Nov. 7 has only six the way the races have been carved up over two days - the Classic, Turf, Juvenile, Sprint, Mile, and Dirt Mile, along with the Grade 2 Juvenile Turf and the ungraded Marathon and Turf Sprint.)

This Saturday's six Grade 1's aren't exactly Breeders' Cup Day, but they include some compelling stories.

The 8-year-old Commentator's bid to win the Whitney for a third time is a quirky undertaking, isolated from the bid for divisional championships and breeding-shed credentials that are the usual goals of such events. The Whitney was a late addition to the list of Win and You're In races for the Breeders' Cup, but Commentator is not going to the Breeders' Cup Classic even if he wins by a pole and runs his fourth Beyer Speed Figure of more than 120 in this decade. At this point in his life, he's not making cross-country trips or trying synthetic racetracks.

He may instead be retired after the Whitney, win or lose, after six intermittently brilliant and injury-plagued seasons. The sole goal in bringing him back as a 8-year-old was to try to get him to join Discovery and Kelso as the only three-time winners of the Whitney, and it's nice to see a single race mean so much in and of itself instead of as a stepping-stone or a value-booster. It's hard not to root for Commentator to be remembered for three Whitneys instead of merely for being one of the fastest horses never to win an Eclipse Award. (He did finish second in the older-male category last year, dropping a 239-1 squeaker to Curlin.)

The three Million Day races are Arlington's only Grade 1 events, and it's a popular festival-style day that's the annual high point of the year for Illinois racing. The Million was conceived 28 years ago as a way to raise the profile and perhaps the quality of grass racing in this country and to internationalize the game by attracting European runners.

It has been a mixed success. The races have been entertaining and memorable, fun to handicap, and filled with close finishes, but it's difficult to argue that American grass racing has advanced much during that time. For the most part, the best grass horses that race here are either imports or horses who don't stack up with our best dirt horses. Successful grass horses are not popular stallions in this country, and very few breeders set out to breed grass horses. When the Europeans send over their really top-class grass horses for the Breeders' Cup, they tend to drown our Grade 1 grass winners, just as our dirt sprinters and milers dominate international challengers in those events.

This year's Million features two very likeable American-based runners as the morning-line favorites: Gio Ponti, a winner of three straight American Grade 1's in California and New York, and Einstein, a gritty 7-year-old with Grade 1 wins on multiple surfaces. But the truth is that as popular and accomplished as Einstein is, he would be a longshot in any truly world-class grass race. He's 4-1 on the Million line, just a half-point lower than the 9-2 Irish import Cima de Triomphe, who was 149-1 in last year's Arc de Triomphe, has been off the board in his last four European Group 1 starts, and was just beaten 10 lengths by the top Europeans Sea the Stars and Rip Van Winkle in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown.

The Secretariat is the first Grade 1 grass race of the year for 3-year-old males (the Jamaica Handicap and Hollywood Derby are the only others) and is a good illustration of the huge gulf between American and European grass racing. The favorite, Giant Oak, was on the American classic trail but lost all four of his tries on dirt in Grade 2 and Grade 3 preps, so he's been switched to the grass, where he isn't running any faster but is a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He would be 50-1 against top American 3-year-olds on dirt or against top European 3-year-olds on grass, but he's the 3-1 favorite in an American Grade 1 grass race. The second choice on the Secretariat line at 4-1 is the Irish import Black Bear Island, who might be about the 20th best grass 3-year-old in Europe and who finished 10th to Sea the Stars in the Epsom Derby.

The Arlington races will be fun to watch and bet on, and horses such as Einstein and Gio Ponti are easy to admire for their consistency and durability. It just doesn't seem that our Grade 1 grass horses and races are quite stacking up, or catching up, to the rest of the world.