09/21/2012 2:05PM

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

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.