09/25/2014 12:10PM

Crist: 3-year-olds rarely kick it old school

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There was a time when the main attraction of top-flight racing after Labor Day was seeing how the season’s 3-year-olds stacked up against the older horses. Is that still the case?

At first glance, it is. This weekend, the first three finishers in the Travers are the favorites in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, while the 3-year-old Shared Belief will be favored in Santa Anita’s premier prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race now called the Awesome Again. Yet looking beyond those two races, where the perceived dominance of the 3-year-old males may be a function of an older-male division ravaged by injuries and retirements, it’s a different story.

Saturday’s six other Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds and up – the Beldame, Flower Bowl, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Vosburgh at Belmont, and the Zenyatta and Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita – drew a total of 58 entries. How many of those are 3-year-olds? Just five, most of them longshots.

What has changed so much that older horses account for 53 of those 58 entries and 68 of the 78 entered in all eight of Saturday’s Grade 1 races? There seem to be two factors in play here.

The first is the extension of the restricted 3-year-old season. California Chrome and Bayern are on anyone’s list of the most accomplished sophomores in the sport, and Untapable is the clear leader of the 3-year-old fillies. None of them will be taking on their elders this weekend because all three of them raced last weekend in the Pennsylvania Derby or Cotillion at Parx, races restricted to 3-year-olds. The $1 million purses for those races offer both far more money and easier competition than the traditionally more important races for 3-year-olds and up a week later.

Restricted 3-year-old racing at the highest level once ended with the Alabama and Travers, but now it runs through the final Breeders’ Cup prep cycle. The emergence of the two Parx races has been a boon for the track, giving it one day a year in the national spotlight, but has had a detrimental effect on fall racing in general. Even a race such as the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October has an effect, drawing turf fillies away from the Flower Bowl and Rodeo Drive for a final and easier chance at a Grade 1 victory in restricted company.

So, instead of seeing Untapable face older fillies in the Beldame, she faced a nondescript field of fellow 3-year-olds in the Cotillion. Her only conceivable competition in that race, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama winner Stopchargingmaria, was scratched to duck her and take on easier company in the once-mighty Beldame.

The other factor is the mixed blessing of the Breeders’ Cup itself – a spectacular and vital event that has had the unintended consequence of creating single showdowns at year’s end instead of two or three during the final third of the year. Combine that emphasis on a single race with more restricted races and the reality that horses are now trained to run less often, usually just once each during the eight weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, and fall racing is not what it used to be. The very fact that we all now call races such as the Beldame and the Jockey Club Gold Cup mere preps for the Breeders’ Cup has diminished the value of winning those races.

I used the examples of the Beldame and Gold Cup because the names of Santa Anita’s races on Saturday no longer resonate with history since being changed two years ago. The name changes stemmed from a dispute between Santa Anita and Oak Tree that one would think could have been resolved by now, with the races again called what they always were and reconnected to their history and prominence.

If new names were unavoidable, there were more dignified alternatives than those decreed by Santa Anita’s owner, Frank Stronach, who chose instead to honor a shopping center (Rodeo Drive), a track restaurant (FrontRunner), and his own prized stallion (Awesome Again), a horse who never even raced at Santa Anita. They don’t have quite the same ring as the Yellow Ribbon, Norfolk, and Goodwood, do they?