08/16/2004 12:00AM

Europe tops U.S. on the turf


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - At first blush, it would be easy to conclude that the results of Saturday's Arlington Million and Beverly D. at Arlington Park failed to help clarify the state of the older male and female turf divisions. After all, the first-place finisher in the Arlington Million was disqualified, and the second horse under the line had considerable trouble. And in the Beverly D., only 2 1/4 lengths separated the first and seventh place finishers, which is often a telltale sign of a weak race.

Following some reflection, however, it seems clear that the Million and Beverly D. did sent a strong message, and that is this: When the Europeans send some of their really serious horses for some of our major fall turf races, including, I hope, the Breeders' Cup turf events at Lone Star, watch out. Our turf divisions are weak again this year, especially the male division, and quality European horses will find our major fall turf events about as tough as shooting fish in a barrel.

Powerscourt has some quality, but he's not a truly serious European horse. He did win a soft early-season Group 1 race in Ireland this year, but he is more of a solid Group 2 performer. Magistretti hasn't even been as good as that this year, sliding to the point where he was getting walloped in listed races at Newbury. Yet, Powerscourt inhaled this Million field into the stretch, went on to finish first, and a good case can be made that he would have remained the winner had he kept a straight course. And Magistretti finished strongly to be third, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths.

In the meantime, Kicken Kris was rightly elevated from second to first because, thanks to a poor ride from Jamie Spencer, Powerscourt did not maintain a straight course, and he had to pay the price for nearly putting Kicken Kris over the rail in deep stretch. Kicken Kris's stock got a boost 38 minutes before the Million when Better Talk Now came back from a second to Kicken Kris in last month's Bowling Green to win Saturday's Sword Dancer at Saratoga. But up until the Bowling Green, Kicken Kris had struggled this year, and there is no guarantee that he would have beaten Powerscourt even with a clean trip. Still, Kicken Kris is about as good as any turf horse America has to offer, with the possible exception of Kitten's Joy (more about him later), and the Europeans have far better to present.

It was also true in the Beverly D. Crimson Palace was dismal as the favorite in a Group 2 at Ascot in June, and may be only about as good as her Group 3 win at York in May. Necklace was a Group 1 winner last year, but failed to get even a sniff in four starts since, performing like a shell of her former self. Yet Crimson Palace prevailed in the Beverly D. after attending a slow early pace, and Necklace, who was beaten a half-length for it all finishing third as a 3-year-old versus older, may have won were it not for a trip full of traffic under, you guessed it, Jamie Spencer. At least in the Beverly D., California-based Musical Chimes's fourth-place finish can be forgiven, as she was on the early lead, which is the last place this closer wants to be.

The one real hope the American male turf division might have is Kitten's Joy. Usually, 3-year-old turf specialists like Kitten's Joy have trouble competing with their elders. But Kitten's Joy is vastly superior to your average 3-year-old turf specialist, as he demonstrated once again in his dominating score in the Secretariat Stakes on the Million undercard. In fact, Kitten's Joy's final time was .43 seconds faster than the Million at the same distance, and that with a comparable pace. Kitten's Joy simply ran yet another big one.

We may sweat over our turf horses, but there is no lamenting the state of the American sprint division. This has been a standout group all year, and Speightstown, with his consecutive victories in the Artax, Churchill Downs Handicap, and True North, has been a big reason why. But Speightstown raised the bar Saturday with a strong, track record-equaling score in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga.

The interesting thing about the sprint division is that many of its most prominent members - such as Pico Central, despite his flop in Sunday's Pat O'Brien at Del Mar, Ghostzapper, Strong Hope, and the rapidly emerging O'Brien winner Kela - seem more proficient, and are more accomplished, at seven furlongs than at six. Speightstown also was highly effective at seven furlongs. But his emergence in the True North and Vanderbilt as a six-furlong threat is critical in a Breeders' Cup Sprint context.

"His record at seven furlongs is awesome, and it was a concern cutting back to six furlongs in the True North," said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Speightstown. "What we wanted was to keep him and Strong Hope [whom Pletcher also trains] separated. This horse is so good right now he could probably run seven and do it. But six [furlongs] has proven to be no problem. This will be one year I'm happy the Breeders' Cup [Sprint] is six furlongs."