06/19/2006 12:00AM

Handicap division lacking


NEW YORK - The results of Saturday's big stakes races for older males - the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, and the Californian at Hollywood Park - strongly support something a lot of people already sensed: This year's handicap division is in serious trouble.

Seek Gold's improbable victory in the Foster was a good story in that he won in his first start for trainer Ronald Moquett after being purchased privately. And once in a while, it is kind of cool to see a horse in a major stakes race like the Foster light up the tote board like a Christmas tree, which Seek Gold certainly did, paying a nifty $185.40 to win. When that happens it's a good reminder that just when the game at the highest level feels like it is turning a bit chalky, it's not.

But that aside, Seek Gold's narrow victory in the Foster only underscores how the handicap division is weaker than it has been in a long time. Seek Gold had not won a race of any sort in 22 months, and although he came close to winning a big race when he finished second in the 2004 Clark Handicap - notably at Churchill - to 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, Seek Gold had never won a stakes race of any type, and he made 27 career starts going into Saturday.

And while it was nice to see the tough old veteran Perfect Drift predictably run much better in the Foster moving from turf to dirt, you shouldn't take it much further than that. Before you conclude that Perfect Drift is all the way back, or that it took some kind of cyclonic finish from Seek Gold, who was still last of nine turning for home, to catch him, consider this: The final furlong of the Foster was run in 13.21 seconds, which is really slow. What that means is Seek Gold's whirlwind finish was an optical illusion, and that Perfect Drift, who looked like he had the Foster safely tucked in his hip pocket, reverted to his frustrating, and immensely costly, habit of hanging and waiting on some competition once he hits the front.

As for the Californian, that race starkly demonstrates that when Lava Man isn't around, and while Surf Cat is hobbled with a persistent foot bruise, you can pretty much forget about the Southern California handicap division. Dixie Meister, whose three previous career wins all came in Texas, two against Texas-breds and one in a restricted stakes at Sam Houston, proved best in the Californian, and he paid only $14.

Oh, Dixie Meister has improved since moving into Julio Canani's barn three months ago, but not so much as to think he is a brand new horse. The 100 Beyer Speed Figure that Dixie Meister earned for winning the Californian was one point better than the winning figure of the Foster. Neither figure was remotely impressive enough to intimidate or dissuade anyone with a decent older horse from jumping into an upcoming major stakes they otherwise might not have even considered.

What the handicap division desperately needs, besides Lava Man getting back on dirt (which he is supposed to do next in the Hollywood Gold Cup) and Surf Cat getting healthy, is for Flower Alley, when he returns this Saturday in the Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park, to return as the Flower Alley who ran an excellent second in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall. Otherwise, the 3-year-olds who raced well in the Triple Crown races, and survived, could have their way in major races open to older horses in a fashion we haven't seen in a very long time.

Ironically, the opposite is true when it comes to the relative strengths of this year's older female division and the 3-year-old filly division. This group of 3-year-old fillies has been inscrutable all year, with seemingly a different winner every time a major race for them comes up, only adding to the belief that this is an unusually weak group. And there is no real indication that any of them will step up soon and counter that perception.

But the older female division this year is strong, and more evidence to this conclusion could be found in the results of Saturday's two big stakes for this group, the Fleur de Lis at Churchill and the Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park. Happy Ticket, who sustained tough beats earlier this season in the Apple Blossom and Azeri Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn Park, was at one point last fall no worse than the second-best older female in the land. And with the way Oonagh Maccool was winning her races this year, many considered her to be the ranking member of her division. They put on quite a show in the Fleur de Lis, with Happy Ticket emerging narrowly best. But it is clear both are very good, and that there is very little between them.

As good as Happy Ticket and Oonagh Maccool are, however, it is hard not to be taken with Take D' Tour, who recorded her fourth straight lopsided victory in the Phipps to continue her quick climb up the rankings in her division. While it is true that Take D' Tour was somewhat fortunate to get off with a relatively easy lead in the Phipps, it also must be noted that she was good enough to capitalize on it in a big way, spread-eagling a quality field to earn a Beyer Figure of 105. And purely on the numbers, that would have been good enough to win either the Foster or the Californian by more than three lengths.