06/02/2008 12:00AM

Holiday weekend just so-so


NEW YORK - For those hoping that the longstanding tradition of outstanding stakes racing over the Memorial Day weekend would provide a brief respite from the unsettling news of Big Brown's quarter crack, the continuing speculation over whether Big Brown will even race again after the Belmont, and the pleas for what everyone really wants to see - an eventual matchup between Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin - relief was not easy to find.

Three of the weekend's biggest stakes races, which happened to all fall on Monday, were not without flaws. The biggest problem with them is they had the feel of two-horse affairs. The Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont did attract the pair of the upwardly mobile Divine Park and the sometimes brilliant Commentator. But neither of them is a top-ranked divisional leader, and the rest of the field was not exactly full of household names. It was perfectly understandable if this made you worry a bit about what might be happening to a truly great race like the Met Mile, which used to be a requisite stop for the likes of Equipoise, Stymie, Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Kelso, Buckpasser, Forego, Holy Bull, and Ghostzapper.

The Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park did slightly better in the quality department. Going into the Shoemaker, Daytona and Ever a Friend were among the leaders in their division, but their division is the male turf division, which could - and often does - look dramatically different by season's end.

And then there was the weekend's second-richest stakes race behind the $600,000 Met Mile, Monday's $400,000 Lone Star Park Handicap. Granted, the cost of horse ownership is likely way up, just like everything else today. But if the useful pair of Giant Gizmo and Zanjero, who are even a decided cut below Divine Park and Commentator, are what you have to beat in the Lone Star Handicap, then the purse of this race was compelling proof that this might be the greatest time ever to own a halfway decent racehorse.

The results of these events confirmed that they were the two-horse races they appeared to be on paper. In the Met, Divine Park was able to collar and pull away from a very game Commentator in the late stages, thanks to a big assist from First Defence, who pushed Commentator into draining early fractions of 22.48 and 44.52 seconds. But while this was Divine Park's third straight win, and though this probably makes Divine Park the future-book favorite for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and despite the fact that he earned a decent Beyer Speed Figure of 109, I'm with you if you're not totally buying into Divine Park just yet. Beyond the ideal setup he benefited from, Divine Park made his winning move into a last quarter mile run in 27.30 seconds, and that's not Grade 1 stuff, even if it happened in a race officially designated as such.

Giant Gizmo and Zanjero finished one-two in the Lone Star Park Handicap, as did Daytona and Ever a Friend in the Shoemaker Mile. But in these instances, the winners were much the best. Giant Gizmo, who was also winning his third straight start, had two lengths on Zanjero at the finish, which was completely misleading. After being caught four wide on the first turn, and three to four wide on the far turn, Giant Gizmo probably ran a sixteenth of a mile farther than Zanjero did. The margin between Daytona and Ever a Friend at the end of the Shoemaker was 1 1/2 lengths, and that was also misleading. Ever a Friend bounded right to the front, set a controlled pace while floating Daytona out to the three path for most of the way, and Daytona still overwhelmed him in deep stretch to win for the sixth time in his last seven starts.

The Grade 1 Gamely Stakes, also run Monday at Hollywood Park, went one better than a two-horse race. It looked on paper like three-horse contest, but in a field totaling only five. Precious Kitten, Rutherienne, and Diamond Diva are good turf mares, but they aren't so intimidating that they should have sent the other 33 Gamely nominees running for cover. In the end, however, Precious Kitten turned the Gamely into strictly a one-horse deal. Precious Kitten tracked a fast pace set by Diamond Diva and then, signaling dramatic improvement off her loss to Rutherienne in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland in her season debut, Precious Kitten drew off at will through the stretch, earning a solid Beyer of 108, the same Daytona would wind up with. As for Rutherienne, she did not improve off her Jenny Wiley despite getting a pace suitable for her late kick, and finished a flat third.

Precious Kitten's Gamely was the second impressive victory in three days in the female turf division, following Mauralakana's win in Saturday's Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont, which she took with an impressive turn of foot in the stretch. But don't bet on a meeting between these two anytime soon. Mauralakana specializes in races at extended distances, while Precious Kitten is best at middle distances. Unless the connections of one or the other get really sporting, these two are likely to target different races in the future.