05/24/2010 12:00AM

Gamely, Met Mile top a light menu


NEW YORK - Memorial Day weekend is my favorite holiday weekend, and for about as long as I can remember, Thoroughbred racing has been a big reason why. Back when I was much younger, Memorial Day weekend signaled that the end of the school year was imminent, which meant I could devote every minute of those summer days ahead to my budding degeneracy at places such as Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, Lincoln, Narragansett, Scarborough, Green Mountain, Marshfield, Brockton, Weymouth, Northampton, Great Barrington, Berkshire, Saratoga ... the list goes on and on.

Memorial Day weekend also meant great racing in major stakes races, the histories of which read like the history of the sport itself. This also resonated very strongly with me back then.

In truth, however, fond memories can create expectations that are very difficult, if not impossible, to meet. This came to mind after a look at this Memorial Day weekend stakes schedule. While I still do love this weekend in a racing context, the reality of it is, frankly, a little disappointing.

There will be wall-to-wall racing this weekend, offering more than ample opportunity for the birth of the sort of big score and bad-beat stories that might be related for decades to come. This is a great thing. There will also be lots and lots of stakes racing. This is also good. The only problem is, there won't be a lot of the major stakes racing that people of a certain age have come to associate with Memorial Day weekend. Over the three-day period during one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year, only three Grade 1 races will be run. That's it. And there won't even be a single graded stakes race in the country on Sunday.

One thing you can't do is blame Hollywood Park. It's trying. Hollywood chips in with a Grade 1 race on Saturday and another on Monday. I suppose you can't knock Belmont Park, either. In very trying times, Belmont still brings us the Grade 1 Met Mile, the race that, with all due respect to the great Jersey Derby of yesteryear, was and is for me and many others, the centerpiece of the Memorial Day weekend. And you can't blame the New York Racing

Association for holding back three other Grade 1 events (the Just a Game, the Manhattan, and the Acorn) so that they can all be run on one giant Belmont Stakes card a week from Saturday.

At least the few really prestigious events scheduled this weekend

attracted some genuine quality, starting with Hollywood's Grade 1 feature on Saturday, the Gamely Stakes for fillies and mares on turf. Forever Together, champion turf

female of 2008, makes her second start as a 6-year-old in this spot. Last year, even though she won the Grade 1 Diana, again, Forever Together looked like she had lost a step or two from her Eclipse Award-winning form the season before. And while her second in the Jenny Wiley in her 2010 debut to the red-hot and loose-on-the-lead Wasted Tears was a good effort, it didn't suggest Forever

Together had suddenly gained those lost steps back. But even a Forever Together at 80 percent of her 2008 form is still a force.

The big question in the Gamely is: Will the streaking Tuscan

Evening, winner of four straight graded stakes races, be allowed to steal yet another stakes event?

Tuscan Evening absolutely walked on the lead in the Santa Barbara and Santa Ana handicaps in her last two starts, which considering the form she's in, was tantamount to letting her cut through the infield. But given the other prospective starters in the Gamely, it doesn't look like anyone is capable of putting serious early pressure on Tuscan Evening this time, either.

Staying at Hollywood, pace certainly doesn't seem to be a problem in Monday's Grade 1 feature there, the Shoemaker Mile. In fact, among Compari, Mr Gruff, Monterey Jazz, and Karelian, there is an abundance of speed. That means closers such as Global Hunter, Blue Chagall, Gallant Son, and Riviera Cocktail might receive disproportionate attention at the windows. If that does indeed happen, then the contrarian in me might look at Mr Gruff. This will be Mr Gruff's first attempt at as far as a mile, but he might be the speed of the speed, and with a four-race win streak dating back 14 months, he might have forgotten what losing means.

But for me, it is entirely fitting that Quality Road is returning this weekend in the Met Mile because when he is on his game, he is the best horse in training in this country, bar none. He convinced me of that with his overwhelming performance last February in the Donn Handicap, which he won by almost 13 lengths, earning a heady Beyer Figure of 121. Quality Road has been pointing to the Met Mile ever since, and though he has been effective in his career at distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Metropolitan might be precisely in his wheelhouse.

That's why it is surprising that as many as nine are contemplating opposing Quality Road, and none is mere fodder. Among the other Met Mile prospects are Warrior's Reward, winner of the Grade 1 Carter; Kensei, who showed ability last year when he won the Dwyer and Jim Dandy; You and I Forever, winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, who ships for the deadly Marty Wolfson barn; and the first four finishers of the Westchester, the local springboard to the Met Mile - Le Grand Cru, Convocation, Ironman Jon, and Honest Man. Perhaps the connections of these and the others targeting the Met Mile are thinking that the time to hook Quality Road is off a nearly four-month layoff. Good luck with that. Quality Road won his career debut and the race after every layoff line that appears in his past performances.