04/16/2009 12:00AM

El Crespo poised to upset 'Eddie'


NEW YORK - Where is the richest race in the nation Saturday? It's probably at Keeneland, right? If not there, then it has to be at Santa Anita, or Aqueduct. It can't be anywhere else, right? Wrong. The richest race in the country Saturday is at little old Charles Town in West Virginia, where the new $500,000 Charles Town Classic tops a card that also includes the $250,000 Sugar Maple Stakes, and a handful of other stakes events.

Keeneland, however, is well represented Saturday by the Grade 2, $300,000 Coolmore Lexington, which could have marginal impact on the Kentucky Derby picture, supported by the $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes. There is also a stakes doubleheader at Santa Anita consisting of the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Barbara Handicap and the Grade 3, $100,000 San Simeon Handicap. Other races of note Saturday include the Grade 3, $200,000 Sixty Sails Handicap at Hawthorne, and the Grade 2, $150,000 Bed o' Roses Handicap at Aqueduct.

Coolmore Lexington

Square Eddie will be the solid favorite because his form in this country is several notches above that of anyone else in this race. He romped in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity over the track in his U.S. debut last fall, and followed with a game second as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In his only start this year, Square Eddie was again a game second in the San Rafael Stakes to The Pamplemousse, who became a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby off his subsequent score in the Sham Stakes, only to be knocked out of action by injury. The best race any of Square Eddie's Saturday opponents has won is a Grade 3 stakes on turf.

Injury, specifically a stress fracture of the left front cannon bone, is the reason why Square Eddie has not raced since the San Rafael in mid-January. Nevertheless, his connections last month got the idea that Square Eddie could still make the Kentucky Derby. The original plan was for Square Eddie to make the Derby off workouts alone. That he will instead prep in this race could be taken as a sign of his current well being. But I take a different view. I get the sense that this race is being crammed into Square Eddie's schedule because it would be too much to hope for him to run a representative race in the Derby off a 3 1/2-month absence with only workouts to get him ready.

Maybe Square Eddie is so much the best that even if this race is being crammed in, he can still win. But what muddies the waters is Square Eddie's position on the graded earnings list. He accumulated more than enough graded earnings last year to ensure a starting berth in the Derby. He doesn't need a first- or second-place finish in the Lexington to go on to Louisville, just a decent effort. That sort of lowered incentive in a first start back off of injury, coupled with short odds, makes Square Eddie a play-against.

El Crespo is the other graded stakes winner in this field. He won the Palm Beach on the turf at Gulfstream Park last time out, earning a 91 Beyer Figure that equals Square Eddie's best, and is the pick to upset.

I'm not concerned that El Crespo gave a dull performance on Keeneland's Polytrack last fall in his one synthetic-track attempt. That came in his career debut, and before he was fitted with blinkers. El Crespo is clearly much improved since then. His subsequent solid turf form strongly suggests that he should indeed handle synthetic surfaces, and that his debut was likely an aberration. It is very encouraging that El Crespo's trainer, Rusty Arnold, has excellent numbers with horses making the turf-to-synthetic move.

Charles Town Classic

I think it's a safe assumption that Commentator, who will make his 2009 debut in this event, is one of the best - if not the best - horses ever to race at Charles Town. Commentator is a multiple Grade 1 winner who has defeated a Horse of the Year (Saint Liam), and who has cracked the 120 Beyer barrier a couple of times.

Commentator also runs big fresh. He scored by more than 11 lengths and earned a 109 Beyer in his 2007 debut, and he won by 14 lengths and earned a 119 Beyer in his first start last year.

But as imposing as Commentator looks in this spot, his 2007 and 2008 debuts came in one-turn races. This is a three-turn race, and as long as Commentator has been around, he is not accustomed to the kind of hairpin turns he'll encounter Saturday night. So I'm going with local hope Researcher.

Researcher is certainly at home at tight-turned Charles Town. His 22 1/4-length score there last time out was his sixth win from 10 starts over the track. Victories late last year in the Mountaineer Mile and the Queens County at Aqueduct say that Researcher is good enough to capitalize if Commentator is not at the top of his game.

Santa Barbara Handicap

Foxysox and Black Mamba were a nose apart when first and second in this race last year. They were in sharp form at that time, and they both come into this race off a layoff.

Magical Victory is the play. Magical Victory's two starts this year came against the formidable Life Is Sweet on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, including a close second in the La Canada two starts back. She moves back to turf here, the surface I think she is most effective on. It was on turf last year that Magical Victory upset the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks, and finished a very good fourth behind the top-notch pair of Cocoa Beach and Precious Kitten in the Grade 1 Matriarch.