09/21/2012 3:05PM

Crist: Rich fall races keep 3-year-olds from facing older

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Barbara D. Livingston
In a better-organized racing world, we would see Questing take on her elders in the Beldame instead of continuing to face 3-year-old fillies.

There was a time not that long ago when top-class racing in the fall was largely about the first matchups between the sport’s top 3-year-olds and its top older horses. The rich and highly graded races restricted to 3-year-olds were over by Labor Day, retired to the closet like white shoes, and now it was time to find out just how good the stars of the 3-year-old races were by seeing how they stacked up against their elders.

The autumnal equinox of 2012, however, highlighted a divergence from that road. The two biggest races on this year’s first day of fall were the newly Grade 1 Cotillion for fillies and the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby for males, both $1 million races and both restricted to 3-year-olds. The Cotillion drew a field of four with divisional leader Questing 1-5 against three seemingly overmatched rivals, while the Pennsylvania Derby came up as a rematch between the dead-heat winners of the Travers, Alpha and Golden Ticket. What do you do when you win the Travers or Alabama? This year, you go to Parx.

In a better-organized racing world, those three would have waited another week to run and we would have seen Questing take on top older fillies such as Royal Delta and It’s Tricky in the Beldame, while Alpha and Golden Ticket would have been headed to the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is what leading 3-year-olds are supposed to do, and what racing fans want to see, but you can hardly blame these horses’ handlers for running in easier spots for more money. Instead, those two races at Belmont next Saturday will lack any top 3-year-olds, and the whole idea of 3-year-olds running against older horses has been turned into a one-time proposition at the Breeders’ Cup.

Someone has to win all those Oakses every year, but it takes a special 3-year-old filly to beat her elders in the fall. Winning a race such as the Beldame – or the discontinued Ruffian, or the Spinster before it was moved to Polytrack – used to define that exceptionalism. The list of 3-year-old fillies who have won the Beldame is riddled with champions such as Susan’s Girl, Life’s Magic, Lady’s Secret, Personal Ensign, and Go for Wand.

In the 10 years from 1992 through 2001, 3-year-olds won the Beldame six times, including victories by champions Serena’s Song and Heavenly Prize. In the 10 years since, only one 3-year-old has triumphed, and it has been nine straight years since a 3-year-old has won the race.

The Gold Cup has been a tougher proposition for 3-year-olds, but those who have won it in recent years – Bernardini in 2006, Curlin in 2007, and Summer Bird in 2009 – all went on to win the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old champion.

The enriching and the rescheduling of the Parx races for so late in September – they used to be run early in the month, with the Pennsylvania Derby a Labor Day tradition – is part of a larger and unfortunate trend of expanding and enriching restricted races for 3-year-olds throughout the year.

We rarely see top 3-year-old grass fillies in races such as the Yellow Ribbon (or whatever they’re calling it now) and the Flower Bowl because there are now Grade 1-restricted races such as the Queen Elizabeth II and the Garden City right up against them. Belmont could cannabalize its own Joe Hirsch Turf Classic for male turfers by offering a Grade 1 Jamaica restricted to 3-year-olds a week later on Oct. 6. Rich, relatively new races such as the Indiana Derby provide a path of least resistance for a champion such as Lookin At Lucky, who was able to earn an Eclipse by winning that race at Hoosier Park, skipping the Gold Cup, and deferring a start against elders until a fourth-place finish in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It’s too bad that the Graded Stakes Committee has given Grade 1 status to restricted fall races such as the Cotillion and Jamaica; at least the Breeders’ Cup hasn’t designated any of those races as Win and You’re In events. Those designations, however, don’t change the proposition that it’s better to be 1-5 for $1 million in the Cotillion than 3-1 for $600,000 in the Beldame. It’s just a shame that there aren’t clearer paths to championships that would bring together the sport’s best runners more than once a year.

Rick Harrington More than 1 year ago
I think we're seeing what slot money is doing to racing right here. Philadelphia (I refuse to be formal and call it Parx) saw that they weren't going to have the PA Derby be a big draw for horses and patrons alike with it running only 9 days after the Travers, so let's put it later in the month when they could get the name And offered the purse that tells horsemen: "I'd rather race in PA, I'd earn more than I would in NY." Belmont Park officials need to catch this trend and counter by making the Jockey's Club Gold Cup a $1.5 mill event. Or if not that, offer a bonus to a horse who wins both that race and the Travers. Otherwise they're going to continue to see horses take off to "smaller" tracks, leaving their big day without big names and big fields.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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Van Cushny More than 1 year ago
My only point is that if Questing wants to be considered for HoY she needs to run in the JCGC, not the Cotlllion or even the Beldame, and anyone who voted for Questing in the NTRA poll, which is supposed to be representative of your HoY vote, before she faced older males, was misguided. Now we know those voters were wrong because Questing lost to another 3-yr-old filly in the Cotillion anyway. Last year's HoY winner ducked the best horses in training to run in the Beldame instead of the JCGC - that was lame. NTRA and HoY voters should have penalized her for that move, but they didn't because they no sense of logic. Dullahan didn't duck anyone when he ran in the Pacific Classic - kudos to his connections. He may be a synth specialist, but right now he is the best synth horse in the country.
Van Cushny More than 1 year ago
I agree 100% with Mr. Crist on this article. At least we got to see Judy The beauty and Emma'a Encore take on their elders on the Gallant Bloom on saturday. Closly related to the issues that Mr. Crist writes about are the turf writers who foolishly vote for 3-yr-olds who have never faced older horses in the weekly NTRA polls. Dullahan deserves to be ranked in the top-10 because he beat older horses in the Pacific Classic, but Questing? Only someone who is ignorant of racings rich history would think that a 3-yr-old filly would beat older males. It is possible (see Cicada & Rachel Alexandra) extremely rare - until a 3-year-old filly actually beats older males she has no place in the NTRA polls.
john More than 1 year ago
Absolutely agree with you Steven but we both come from a different era. Remember the weight Forego carried in handicaps and still won. Unfortunately, times have changed and slots allow places like Philly Park to inflate purses to attract horses. The three year old crop this year has been decimated (becoming an annual occurrence) and having two fifth string 3 year-olds running for a million dollars is certainly not Affirmed/Alydar. The invention of the Breeders Cup changed the whole dynamic.
Alex More than 1 year ago
Money makes no difference to Godolphin.. so why were they in these races??? They should have been entered in the far more prestigious races at Belmont next Saturday
John Murphy More than 1 year ago
All of the old NY-centered handicappers long for the day when horses were saddled under the trees at Saratoga and the Fall Championshsip meeting at Belmont was the big finale of the year. Sometimes they even criticize the Breeders Cup; Steve doesn't do it directly but it's there between the lines. I would make another argument as a handicapper. I always downgrade horses when they take an easier spot, it reflects a certain lack of confidence, and they are overbet in the soft spot.
Derek More than 1 year ago
John, I dont think its a lack of confidence....more that they place emphasis on the Breeders Cup and want as easy a path as possible for their filly. The Beldame would have been a tougher proposition for Questing. As it transpired, giving a whole lot of weight to the 2yo champion proved too much and she had as hard a race as she would likely of had in the Beldame. Questing will be 7 pounds better off at Santa Anita and she must have a reasonably good chance of reversing the form with the unbeaten filly.....although whether she will beat the older mares is more than open to question.
John Schweighardt More than 1 year ago
Look at Royal Delta last year; no shame losing to Havre de Grace in last year's Beldame only to come back to win the Ladies Classic. Could Questing and/or MMA have run in this year's Beldame? Possibly. As for the 3 year old males, the crop is so bad that none of them would have a prayer in this year JCGC. The 3 year olds that have won this in the past were just too far superior than what we have here today.
hdubret More than 1 year ago
Right again.....nobody wants to see Questing "against three seemingly overmatched rivals". It was only the best race of the year, any sex, any age. If it had been at Saratoga you'd have been voting them into the Hall of Fame already!
James Romano More than 1 year ago
You're right hdubret he commented about Questing as if the race was a foregone conclusion despite one of her foes was an undefeated 2yo champ who was coming off a nice comeback race in My Miss Aurelia because of Questings high figures vs her and the other 2 .It was still rediculous to not think My Miss Aurelia was "overmatched" as she of course proved she wasn't!!!
James Romano More than 1 year ago
I meant to say it was still rediculous to think My Miss Aurelia was overmatched-take out the word not
DrSmoke120 More than 1 year ago
Most of these 3yo specials are fueled by slots. Slots are bad for racing, kinda like steroids for humans. They will pump you up and make you larger than life in the short run but destroy you in the end.
Eric Burton More than 1 year ago
Get used to it if racing is to survive it will be on the purse strings of slots. Racing can on longer stick their collective heads in the sand and expect all the woes to go away. Slots are the salvation of racing and if constructed correctly can serve to saving racing from it's self. Sooner or later the horsemen and owners will say hey let's point this great 3 year old to those Parx million dollar races in September. Racetracks with slots are begin to dominate racing and I don't see that changing in the near future.
PaulG More than 1 year ago
These late in the 3 year old only racing are a big obstacle in popularizing racing (as well as the Strub races). You have your most popular race days and biggest publicity when the best meet the best, Grading committee should not give gradings to any 3 year old races after July 31. Changes in weight assignment can make races more equal if 3 year olds aren't winning against older horses. We are running big money stakes with fields too short to bet, eliminating great matchups of top horses and losing more exciting finishes that larger fields can yield.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
Travers is a traditional late August stakes event, while as noted previously we had the Super Derby (then a Grade 1) at Louisiana Downs in September.