08/31/2008 12:00AM

Everybody's leaping maiden to stakes


NEW YORK - In the next four days, the first four Grade 1 winners from the foal crop of 2006 will be determined in the Spinaway and Hopeful at Saratoga and the Del Mar Debutante and Del Mar Futurity. There's a good chance that most or even all of them will become Grade 1 winners without having first done something that used to be nearly mandatory for a 2-year-old: Win more than one race before becoming a stakes winner.

When War Pass won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old championship last year, trainer Nick Zito said he thought one of the keys to the colt's successful campaign was that he had two starts before trying stakes company, winning both a maiden and a nonwinners-of-two allowance race at Saratoga before moving on to the Champagne and the Juvenile. Last Aug. 26, eight days before the Hopeful, War Pass won that allowance race with a second-time starter named Pyro up for third after a rough start. They went on to run one-two in both the Champagne and the Juvenile.

"You like to develop them from race to race instead of throwing them right to the wolves," Zito said last fall.

If you're looking for who won this year's nonwinners-of-two 2-year-old race at Saratoga, don't bother: There wasn't one. There was one in the condition book for Aug. 22, but it didn't fill. There hasn't been an allowance race for 2-year-olds in New York yet this year.

Everyone goes straight from maiden races to stakes company nowadays. Sunday's Adirondack drew eight 2-year-old fillies, who have a combined 18 past-performance lines - 11 maiden starts and seven stakes starts. The fields for the Hopeful and the Del Mar races are likely to look similar.

It's a trend that has been going on for a generation. D. Wayne Lukas was a pioneer of it back in the 1980s, shipping maiden winners into stakes spots instead of bringing them through their conditions, and now former Lukas assistants such as Kiaran Mclaughlin and Todd Pletcher, the top two trainers at Saratoga this year, are following suit. In the last two years we've seen Curlin and Big Brown winning the Preakness in just their fifth career starts, something that would have been considered outlandish if not impossible just a decade ago.

It's part of the larger pattern of collecting as much black type as you can early in a horse's career so he'll have laurels to advertise if something goes wrong and he goes off to stud early. It's also part of the current fashion of training rather than racing horses into shape, a hallmark of the Coolmore and Maktoum outfits that have dominated European racing for the last 20 winners. Both have won multiple classics with lightly raced horses coming off long layoffs, and as their global influence has increased, American horses are being campaigned the same way.

Breeders' Cup and boutique tracks

Del Mar, Keeneland, and Saratoga are three of racing's ongoing success stories and much of their appeal stems from their short meetings and historical charm. Yet all three could look a bit or more different in the coming years as their operators ponder a more 21st century look.

Keeneland Race Course last week held a public forum in Lexington, Ky., on plans to renovate and expand its facilities with an eye toward hosting a Breeders' Cup in the years ahead. The New York Racing association has hired an architectural firm that has been conducting interviews with racetrackers about how to improve the facilities at Belmont and Saratoga once money starts rolling in from the Aqueduct racino (one of these decades). Del Mar also is bidding for a Breeders' Cup as early as 2010, which would require some upgrades, though there might be a national mutiny if the event is held in Southern California for three straight years.

Del Mar, Keeneland, and Saratoga are treasures, but the idea of holding a Breeders' Cup at any of them makes you wonder whether a few days of national attention would outweigh what might be lost through expansion and modernization, especially since each is in a state with a coliseum-sized track that has successfully hosted the event multiple times - Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, and Belmont Park. It might behoove these so-called boutique tracks to bask in the popularity of their short, seasonal meets rather than lose any of their charm and appeal in order to steal the spotlight from neighboring behemoths that were built for days that attract - if only once or twice a year - Breeders' Cup-sized crowds.