09/30/2009 12:00AM

Huge day at Belmont has meaning of its own


NEW YORK - It's anyone's guess how much of an impact the Super Saturday events at Belmont Park this Saturday will have on the Breeders' Cup. No one should be surprised if these races turn out to play an enormous role in what transpires five weeks from this weekend at Santa Anita. After all, we're taking here about the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the Beldame, the Vosburgh, and the Flower Bowl - five of New York's most prestigious Grade 1 events.

And yet, these races could just as easily have no bearing whatsoever on the Breeders' Cup. Three of the five Super Saturday events (the Gold Cup, Beldame, and Vosburgh) are on dirt, and are springboards to corresponding Breeders' Cup races that for the second straight year will be decided in a completely different universe - on a synthetic racing surface.

The other two Grade 1's Saturday at Belmont will be run on turf, and even with the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic attracting Gio Ponti, the best turf horse in America this year, it is still entirely possible that those who emerge from these races could be overwhelmed in the Breeders' Cup by European invaders.

It's only natural with stakes races run this time of year almost to overlook the immediate picture in favor of the long-term, Breeders' Cup view. But in this case, maybe it's best to take the quintet of Grade 1 races Saturday at Belmont only for what they are, and forget about what they might or might not mean in regard to the Breeders' Cup.

The biggest race is, of course, what used to be the Breeders' Cup Classic before there was a Breeders' Cup, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This year's Gold Cup has three particularly compelling figures in Summer Bird, Macho Again, and Quality Road.

The 3-year-old Summer Bird added a decisive victory in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes last time out to his earlier upset of the Belmont Stakes. In most any other season, Summer Bird, with a major victory in the fall over older horses, especially in the Breeders' Cup Classic, would be a serious candidate for more than just a divisional title. He would be a prime candidate for Horse of the Year honors. But in truth, anything Summer Bird accomplishes this autumn only strengthens the candidacy of pro-tem Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, who crushed Summer Bird two starts back in the Haskell. Of more immediate import, however, are the concerns that Summer Bird received a perfect trip when he won the Travers, and when he won the Belmont, he beat a runner up in Dunkirk who was injured during the running, and a third finisher in Mine That Bird, who got a less than stellar ride.

Macho Again got closer to Rachel Alexandra than any other horse did this year when he lost by a head to her last time out in the Woodward, and it will be interesting to see what currency that has Saturday. The reason why there is even a question about that is, Macho Again has never been known as a world-beater, though he has developed a nice streak of consistency. And in the Woodward, you needed a telescope to find everyone who was close to Rachel Alexandra's strong early pace. That debilitating pace certainly aided late runners like Macho Again and third-place Bullsbay.

Quality Road was the favorite when he finished third in the Travers, five lengths behind Summer Bird. But his most ardent fans would probably claim, with justification, that too much was being asked of him by running in the Travers. He was making only his second start back from a four-month absence because of quarter cracks, and he had the benefit of only a 6 1/2-furlong prep before being asked to go 10 furlongs in tiring slop in the Travers. Maybe Quality Road isn't really a 1 1/4-mile horse. But he is in much better position Saturday to show the brilliance he showed on several occasions before the Travers, and that helps make the Gold Cup interesting.

The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic finds Gio Ponti going for his fifth straight Grade 1 victory this year. It also finds Gio Ponti attempting 1 1/2 miles for the first time in his career. In his favor, Gio Ponti has relaxed so well in the early stages of his races and has then been able to finish equally strongly at distances of eight, 10, and 11 furlongs that he seems an ideal candidate to get the added ground. But Gio Ponti doesn't have much room for error. After floundering in his first three starts this year, Grand Couturier was powerful winning the Bowling Green most recently in a performance strikingly similar to the one that preceded his 10 1/4-length score in this race last year.

The Beldame proposes an interesting battle between Icon Project and Godolphin's Music Note. Icon Project turned in one of the best performances of the year last time out when she won the Personal Ensign by 13 1/2 lengths, and that effort didn't just come out of the blue. Before she was compromised by a slow pace and a speed bias when she ran second in the Delaware Handicap, she won the off-the-turf New York Stakes by more than 13 lengths.

Icon Project must be at her best, however, as Music Note, who was this close to being champion 3-year-old filly last year, rebounded from an awful seasonal debut with a lights-out score in the Ballerina last time out.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the accomplishments of Summer Bird. He is not the first 3-year-old male to win two Grade 1 races this year; Zensational has three such wins.