07/08/2009 11:00PM

Grade 1 names can tend to ignore history


NEW YORK - Saturday's feature at Belmont Park is a Grade 1 race at 11 furlongs on the grass, the 51st running of a race named in honor of that noted turf marathoner Man o' War.

I kid. Man o' War, widely considered one of the three best American racehorses of the last century, is more than deserving of a Grade 1 race in his honor, but while winning 20 of 21 starts in 1919 and 1920, he never set foot on grass except to eat some.

His fate as the namesake of an entirely inappropriate race is more the rule than the exception in American racing. Consider the two horses most often mentioned in the same best-of-the-20th-century breath, Secretariat and Citation. Both are at least remembered with Grade 1 races named for them, but both of those events are also on the grass.

The Secretariat Stakes at Arlington next month is for 3-year-olds at 10 furlongs on the grass. Secretariat made his first 19 starts on dirt and only his final two on grass. The Citation Handicap is run at Hollywood Park in November at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Citation's 45 career starts from 1947 through 1951, just before the advent of grass racing in the United States, were all on dirt.

By my count, only 8 of the 114 Grade 1 races in the United States this year are named after male racehorses, and most of them are at the wrong surface or distance. In addition to the Man o' War, Secretariat, and Citation, there's the Sword Dancer at Saratoga Aug. 15 at 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Sword Dancer, the 1959 Horse of the Year (when he won the Met Mile, Belmont, Travers, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup), made three career starts on the grass, losing them all - including a distant third in the second running of the Man o' War in 1960.

At least we don't know for a fact that Man o' War and Citation couldn't handle the grass. Naming a grass race the Sword Dancer is like naming a dirt race for Manila, or a synthetic-track race for Street Sense or Curlin.

Then there's the Forego at Saratoga three weeks after the Sword Dancer, a Grade 1 at seven furlongs. At least it's on the dirt and at least Forego won two Carters and two Vosburghs, but he was a champion sprinter only once and better remembered for the longer races that earned him four handicap-male titles and three Horse of the Year trophies.

The other three males for whom Grade 1 races are named are the non-champion sprinters King's Bishop (seven furlongs for 3-year-olds at Saratoga on Aug. 29) and Triple Bend (won by Zensational at Hollywood Park last Sunday), and the only horse to have won his own Grade 1 race: Cigar, who won the NYRA Mile in 1994, three years before it was renamed in his honor.

Man o' War, Secretariat, Citation, Forego, and Cigar are the only five of the 30 horses listed in the American Racing Manual as the greatest males of the 20th century to have current Grade 1 races named for them. The Kelso, Swaps, and Tom Fool are Grade 2 races. The Affirmed, Count Fleet (at Oaklawn), Holy Bull, Nashua, and Skip Away are Grade 3's. There are currently no graded races named for Assault, Buckpasser, Colin, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Equipoise, Exterminator, Gallant Fox, John Henry, Native Dancer, Omaha, Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew, Sir Barton, Spectacular Bid, War Admiral, or Whirlaway.

Fillies and mares have done much better in terms of getting Grade 1 races, and appropriate ones, named after them. Almost half of the 41 Grade 1 races restricted to fillies and mares are named after runners, from Alcibiades to Vanity, including three of the five listed in the Manual as 20th century greats: the Lady's Secret, Personal Ensign, and Ruffian are all Grade 1's. Shuvee has a former Grade 1 and current Grade 2 race at Belmont in her honor, and only Twilight Tear is shut out.

Perhaps one reason that fillies are better represented than colts or geldings in Grade 1 names is that so many of the races are named after male humans, including Bing Crosby, Frank De Francis, Stephen Foster, Amory Haskell, Clement Hirsch, Joe Hirsch, Frank Kilroe, Pat O'Brien, Ogden Phipps, Eddie Read, Bill Shoemaker, and Charlie Whittingham. If you don't count Santa Anita's Santa races - the Anitas (Derby, Handicap, and Oaks), Margarita, Maria, and Monica - the only Grade 1 races named after women are the Beverly D. (the late wife of Arlington owner Richard Duchossois), and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland.

And no, the Grade 1 Mother Goose, won two weeks ago by Rachel Alexandra, doesn't count: The race is named not for the author of the nursery rhymes, but for the filly who beat colts in the 1924 Belmont Futurity.