07/17/2008 11:00PM

Going with a horse on the upswing

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PHOENIX - If you had told me Sunday's Grade 1 Eddie Read at Del Mar would be sans Daytona, Ever a Friend, Out of Control, and Artiste Royal. I'm sure my first impulse would be to expect a lackluster event.

I probably couldn't be more wrong. Yes, the heavyweights of the circuit's middle-distance turf division may not be in this 1 1/8-mile grass race, but Sunday's Read nevertheless gives players a chance to finance a few meals at Bully's.

You still have Lava Man. He might not be the same dominant presence he was in 2005 and 2006, but that strong third in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham, beaten just a neck, shows the 7-year-old still has some gas in the tank. You also have Whatsthescript. This guy hinted at big-time ability at 2 in 2006, and even early in 2007, but his campaign was interrupted by injury and layoffs and he was never able to fulfill his promise. That is, until the Grade 2 American Handicap on June 28 at Hollywood, when he bided his time and blasted home between rivals

to win going away. Among the vanquished that day was multiple graded stakes winner Daytona. Storm Military, second to Whatsthescript in the American, second in the Grade 3 Dallas Turf Cup, and fourth in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile, has speed and talent to boot. In other words, the race still drew quality.

But the horse who caught may eye, the one who may be ready to vault forward, is Monzante from the Mike Mitchell barn. The 4-year-old began his career in Europe and was good enough to be stakes-placed and was fourth in the Group 3 Dee Stakes

14 months ago. He came to the United States and made an immediate impression, winning a first-level allowance on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track last November. That was enough to give his connections the impetus to try deeper waters, and he finished seventh in the Grade 2 San Fernando and third in the Grade 2 Strub at Santa Anita. He dropped in class and won the Santana Mile on Santa Anita's synthetic track March 8, and that was enough to earn a berth in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy at Hollywood April 26. Alas, he again found graded company too tough on synthetic footing, finishing sixth.

Mitchell decided it was time to go back to basics. He had a European horse who, while winless on turf, had shown ability on it. He entered him in the Grade 1 Whittingham and got his answer. Monzante was well back early. He made steady headway to the far turn, however, and once straightened away blasted home to finish second, just a neck behind multiple Grade 1 winner Artiste Royal, and a nose in front of Lava Man. Daytona finished well behind.

Monzante earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 in that run and appears back on track. He is obviously comfortable on turf, and this type of distance appears right in his wheelhouse. And, while the race came up tough, there's no denying that the absence of those major players helps his cause. He might be ready to break through for his first Grade 1 win here and serve notice he can be a force in big middle-distance turf events down the road.

Curlin should change direction

Curlin's turf excursion, which began in last week's Grade 1 Man o' War at Belmont, was a noble and wonderful attempt. Curlin lost, yes, but really lost none of his stature. He ran quite well - in fact, based on that race it's tough to see very many American horses beating him from nine to 12 furlongs on the turf.

That being said, it still didn't strike me as the type of race that should send you spinning with confidence down the road to the Arc de Triomphe. After all, Better Talk Now, who can still flirt with top class but may not be quite as good as he once was, looked as if he was going to get past Curlin in another couple of strides. And the victorious Red Rocks (now American-based) was actually edging away. Curlin didn't show quite the same nimbleness or acceleration that he has on dirt. In most any turf race he would have to face a couple of top-class horses; in the Arc he would been looking at a dozen of them.

So his connections want a challenge? Well, here's a horse who has handled numerous dirt tracks, handled slop and now handled turf. Is there anyone out there who really thinks he can't handle synthetic footing? As fun as this turf experiment was, my vote (and of course it's not like my phone is ringing off the hook with the Curlin people asking for my input, but here I go anyway) would be skip the trip to Europe and instead go west. If Japanese star Casino Drive comes back for the Grade 1 Goodwood at Santa Anita in late September, go there and meet him head-on on the very surface over which the Breeders' Cup Classic will be run a month hence.