10/23/2008 11:00PM

Far from the usual Friday


NEW YORK - The inaugural Filly Friday is a microcosm of a Breeders' Cup in transition, featuring some of the best and worst aspects of a championship event that has been radically reinvented for its 25th running.

The five Breeders' Cup races on the 10-race card at Santa Anita on Friday include three that had always been presented as part of Saturday's card before this year's gender-based realignment: the Ladies' Classic, run 24 previous times as the Distaff, and likely to decide the nation's champion older female and champion 3-year-old filly titles; the Juvenile Fillies, which will probably crown the champion 2-year-old filly of 2008; and the Filly and Mare Turf, which was added to the Cup lineup in 1999 and has usually decided the sport's champion grass filly.

The two other Cup events are the Filly and Mare Sprint, added last year along with a corresponding new Eclipse Award for racing's champion female sprinter, and a new Juvenile Fillies Turf, a grass race for 2-year-old fillies that was added this year primarily, well, for the sake of adding a race. There isn't much grass racing for 2-year-old fillies in this country, and no need or demand for a championship in that division.

Months of controversy over the new presentation of the Cup will recede as handicappers dig into the past performances for the card Friday, when they will be struck even more by the most radical change involving this year's Cup: The main-track races, run for the last 24 years on dirt tracks, will instead be run for the first time on a synthetic surface, Santa Anita's new Pro-Ride track installed only a month ago. While the new surface has generally seemed to play formfully, that speaks largely to form established on the insular Southern California circuit, where all main-track racing is now on synthetics - Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, and Polytrack at Del Mar.

The Breeders' Cup, however, is about bringing horses together from all over around the country and a few from overseas. Time after time on Friday and Saturday, handicappers will be making what amount to nothing more than guesses about how American dirt form and European grass form will translate to Pro-Ride.

Friday's first Cup race, the third on the card, is typical of the confusion. On a dirt track, Indian Blessing would be an odds-on favorite in the Filly and Mare Sprint, but not on Pro-Ride. She won her lone start on a synthetic surface, but it was not an impressive victory and her trainer, Bob Baffert, thinks synthetic surfaces deprive horses such as Indian Blessing from showing their true brilliance. I'm rooting for Indian Blessing but picking Zaftig, who will be trying a synthetic track for the first time.

Next comes the new Juvenile Fillies Turf, a hodgepodge involving the winners of the few American stakes for this group and a handful of unaccomplished but perhaps innately superior Europeans. Good luck.

The Juvenile Fillies itself features the usual showdown among the regional leaders of the division, which this year include Grade 1 winners Sky Diva (Frizette), Dream Empress (Alcibiades) and Stardom Bound (Del Mar Debutante and Oak Leaf). I lean toward Stardom Bound, a stretch-runner who's not only a bit faster than the other two but has already excelled over Pro-Ride.

The Filly and Mare Turf drew a strong field of 10 that includes eight Grade 1 or Group 1 winners. I'm stabbing with Forever Together for her superior closing kick despite being unproven at the 10-furlong distance, but Mauralakana and Wait a While are formidable rivals and European invader Halfway to Heaven might be better than them all. This one should be a doozy.

The final Friday Cup race, the Ladies' Classic, features a rematch of last year's photo finish between Ginger Punch and Hystericalady, which normally would be the dominant story line but isn't for two reasons. First, the two have combined to win one allowance race and lose all six of their stakes starts on synthetic tracks. Second, they will be no better than a distant second and third choice to Zenyatta, who has beaten them both this season and will be trying to remain undefeated in her ninth career start, all but one on synthetics. Zenyatta, a massive filly with a powerful late run, can wrap up the champion older female title with a victory and might even get some Horse of the Year consideration depending on what happens Saturday.

I'm not going to try to beat her, but whether you are or not, be sure to check the post times and betting menus. There's nothing intuitive or usual about it. You would think, for example, that the Ladies' Classic would be the climactic event and the last leg of multirace bets, but it's the first leg of one pick four, the third leg of another, and leg 5 of a pick six that concludes with the Grade 2 Las Palmas Handicap, a race for fillies not good enough to run in the Filly and Mare Turf two races earlier. That's a final oddity on a day of championship racing unlike any we have seen before.