09/01/2008 11:00PM

Grade 1 in name only


By the first weekend in September, we will know which of the promising 2-year-olds at Saratoga and Del Mar were able to win the season's first four Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds - all for $250,000, all at seven furlongs.

In fact, we already know that Mani Bhavan won the Spinaway at Saratoga on Sunday, and on Monday the results of the Hopeful at Saratoga and Del Mar Debutante also will be in the books. Just the Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday will complete the quartet of meet ending stakes for juveniles.

But will we have really learned anything? Will these winners continue to be legit leaders of their respective division?

About a dozen years ago, there would be reason to believe in the results of these Grade 1 races. That is hardly the case in the contemporary world of racing maiden winners in virtually all stakes for young horses. This seems especially true for the four Grade 1 stakes that kick off the summer-fall drive to the Breeders' Cup.

In my view, the intrinsic value of all of these stakes for rapidly developing young horses has been minimized, turning once super-classy Grade 1 races into borderline Grade 2 events with limited predictive value for longer, stronger Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup and next spring's classics.

Aside from a rare previous stakes winner taking one off these Grade 1 races - such as Mani Bhavan, who parlayed her win in the Adirondack into her Spinaway score - they resemble glorified allowance races with exaggerated black type for breeders and sales consigners. This even reinforces the pattern of quick financial returns and early retirement that can be gleaned from victories in hollow graded stakes by immature juveniles beating other immature juveniles.

Some of these seven-furlong stakes winners of course are fast horses; some will even go a mile or so on their best day if they do not injure themselves from being asked to run so hard while missing a preparatory intermediate allowance race, or a stakes at a shorter distance.

It used to be that the Spinaway and Hopeful regularly attracted the top performers from one or both of the earlier Saratoga stakes for each sex - the Schuylerville and Adirondack for fillies and the Sanford and Saratoga Special for 2-year-old males. The intent was to give fancy maiden winners a chance to prove they deserved to run in the Spinaway and Hopeful.

This year, we did see Jardin, winner of the opening-day Schuylerville Stakes, come back to run a good second in the Spinaway to the fast Adirondack winner Mani Bhavan, while the small Spinaway field included four other non-stakes winners, including three maiden winners and one filly who did finish a distant second in the Astoria at Belmont in June and a fair third in the Schuylerville.

While Mani Bhavan also has some distance potential through her broodmare sire Coronado's Quest, she will need further development when slower-developing fillies with stronger distance pedigrees show up at one mile and longer in the fall. One of those slower-developing fillies could be Devotee, winner of a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race on the Spinaway card.

A daughter of the top miler Elusive Quality out of a Sunday Silence broodmare, Devotee could be a better long-range prospect than either the first two finishers of the Spinaway.

The Hopeful did attract the first- and third-place finishers in the Sanford - Desert Party and Vineyard Haven - plus Break Water Edison, the second-place finisher in the Saratoga Special, and the precociously fast Notonthesamepage, who finished second in the Tyro at Monmouth. But it also attracted three maiden race winners, including Munnings, who was listed as one of the favorites based on his winning Saratoga debut on July 26 that earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.

A closer look at the pedigrees of these young horses suggests that Desert Key and Break Water Edison are bred well enough to be threats at longer distances, so long as they are given time to develop.

In the Del Mar Debutante on Monday, the full field of 12 includes six maiden race winners and the 1-2-3-4 finishers in the mid-meet Sorrento Stakes (Evita Argentina, Stardom Bound, Glitter City and Emmy Darling), plus Saucey Evening, who was second in a Cal-bred stakes July 18.

Among these, Evita Argentina, a daughter of the exceptionally gifted Candy Ride, has not run a fast race yet but has Grade 1 potential beyond sprint distances.

Emmy Darling, bothered by Glitter City in the Sorrento and moved up to third by the stewards, and Stardom Bound, still a maiden after a pair of rough starts, made the strongest visual impressions in their maiden and stakes tries. A daughter of 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit, Stardom Bound has considerable room to improve, even though her Beyer Speed Figures did not rank among the top five in the Debutante field.

In the Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday, closing day at Del Mar, there were 11 entered, including an embarrassing three who had not won a maiden race, plus five who were put into this Grade 1 race off a maiden win in their debut. Prior to the Del Mar Futurity, the Bob Baffert-trained maiden winner Midshipman had the fastest Beyer Speed Figure in the race, a 90. The most accomplished, however, were Southern Exchange, Kelly Leak and Coronet of a Baron, all with reasonable credentials to run in a Grade 1 stakes.

Unbeaten Southern Exchange had won two stakes in Canada; Kelly Leak finished first in the Best Pal, but was disqualified to fourth for interference; and Coronet of a Baron finished third and was moved up to second in that roughly run race. Yet, the best juvenile prospect I saw at Del Mar this summer was Azul Leon, who inherited the Best Pal victory when Kelly Leak was DQ'd. Azul Leon is being reserved for the Norfolk Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet leading into the Breeders' Cup.

As stated, the four Grade 1 stakes that close out America's prestigious summer race meets on both coasts no longer seem to be legit Grade 1 races that truly identify Grade 1 horses. They are useful races to be sure, but from a handicapping perspective I think these two points deserve more credence.

o The winners of these historically popular but inflated Grade 1 stakes tend to be cut from the mold of the modern approach to developing young horses: Better to forget about horses with prospects for long-term development; better to look for relatively fast, somewhat precocious horses with a touch of middle-distance pedigree power, but not too much.

o The best long-term juvenile prospects that we see in the modern age at Saratoga or Del Mar have breeding to suggest that they will not reach top form until a month or two or three after the four seven-furlong stakes at Saratoga and Del Mar are run.

To reinforce these points, I suggest taking note of those juveniles who showed hints of ability - or even a victory - in one or two starts but have the pedigree power to improve dramatically at longer distances during the fall into next winter and spring.

Recent trends suggest that our Triple Crown prospects will come from the 2-year-old performers who conform to this pattern rather than the winners of suspect Grade 1 stakes at seven furlongs overloaded with maidens, maiden grads and stakes winners who merely beat maiden grads to earn their black type.

My list of long-term juvenile prospects includes four from the four Grade 1 stakes being discussed, Stardom Bound, Emmy Darling, Break Water Edison and Desert Party, all of whom will need patient handling in September and October to reach their potential. Also on my list are the Del Mar maiden winner Arashi Cat, who is nursing a quarter crack; the talented Azul Leon; Saratoga Special winner Run Away and Hide, being given time to develop after three straight wins; plus four very impressive, strongly bred Saratoga maiden race winners, Girolamo, Regal Ransom, Majestic Blue, and the aforementioned Devotee.