09/08/2009 11:00PM

Fall meet offers last big chances on dirt

Barbara D. Livingston
Seventh Street will top the Grade 1, $300,000 Ruffian Handicap for fillies and mares on Saturday at Belmont Park.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Belmont Park fall meet may lack the sizzle of Saratoga, but there's still plenty at stake over the next 6 1/2 weeks.

In a year where the Breeders' Cup will once again be conducted over a synthetic surface, Belmont's 33-day fall meeting - which begins Friday - offers dirt horses their best last chance of the year at a lucrative prize. Grade 1 races such as the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, $600,000 Beldame, $400,000 Vosburgh, $400,000 Champagne, and $400,000 Frizette could have just as much of an impact on year-end divisional honors as any of the Breeders' Cup races run at Santa Anita in November.

All told, Belmont will host 34 stakes worth $8.1 million, including 11 Grade 1 events. The first two major stakes of the meeting will be on Saturday: the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap for fillies and mares on dirt at 1 1/16 miles featuring Seventh Street, and the Grade 1 Garden City for 3-year-old fillies on turf led by Gozzip Girl. The Ruffian is a Win and You're In race, meaning the winner gets an automatic berth into the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.

Friday's opening-day feature was scheduled to have been the Grade 2, $150,000 Bowling Green Handicap for older males at 1 3/8 miles on turf. But with a forecast that calls for approximately an inch of rain Thursday into Friday, New York Racing Association officials made the decision Wednesday to postpone that race until Sunday. Grade 1 winners Grand Couturier and Winchester are expected to headline that field when entries are taken Friday.

NYRA is offering free grandstand admission for the first three days of the meet. Also, on all Saturdays the late pick-four wager will have a guaranteed pool of $350,000.

The marquee day of the meet is Oct. 3 when five Grade 1 races are scheduled, headlined by the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Summer Bird is already here training for the race. A victory in the race could secure Summer Bird the Eclipse Award for leading 3-year-old even before the BC Classic is run.

Among the horses likely to face Summer Bird in the Gold Cup are Florida Derby winner Quality Road, Suburban winner Dry Martini, and Macho Again, who fell a head short of Rachel Alexandra in last weekend's stirring renewal of the Woodward.

Speaking of Rachel Alexandra, she is not expected to race again this year, so the dream matchup NYRA was hoping for in the Beldame between Rachel and the undefeated 5-year-old mare Zenyatta is not going to happen. Still, the $600,000 Beldame on Oct. 3 could lure Icon Project, who won the off-the-turf New York Stakes here in the spring and the Personal Ensign at Saratoga last month.

Other Grade 1 events on the Oct. 3 card are the Vosburgh, likely to draw Fabulous Strike; the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, which could feature four-time Grade 1 winner Gio Ponti; and the Flower Bowl Invitational for fillies and mares.

Two-year-olds will be featured on both Sept. 19 in the Grade 2 Futurity for males and Grade 2 Matron for females, and on Oct. 10 in the Grade 1 Champagne for males and Grade 1 Frizette for fillies. The Oct. 10 card also features the Grade 1 Jamaica for 3-year-olds on turf.

Mother Nature wreaked havoc with the Belmont spring/summer meeting, forcing nearly 80 races off the turf. Friday's card includes four turf races, though there appears to be plenty of main-track-only entrants in most of those races.

There are five horses entered for the main track only in the featured starter allowance, scheduled for 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf course. The race would be run at the same distance if moved to the dirt. Budget, claimed for $35,000 by Carl Domino off a second-place finish in a 1 1/8-mile race at Saratoga, recorded his lone victory in an off-the-turf maiden race in the slop at Fair Grounds in March.

El Tamberito won a second-level New York-bred allowance in June at 1 1/16 miles in the slop here.

If the race stays on the turf, Dantastic could be the one to beat. In the spring, he won twice over yielding Belmont turf and finished third in another race run over soft ground.