07/09/2007 12:00AM

Impressions from stakes-laden weekend

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NEW YORK - Some thoughts after an extremely busy Saturday of important stakes racing:

* For my money, Nashoba's Key became the new leader of the older filly and mare division by virtue of her victory in the Grade 1 Vanity Invitational at Hollywood Park, although I can see why some might disagree.

It is true that Nashoba's Key has yet to race, let alone win, on a conventional dirt track. After beginning her career with three victories on turf, she has extended her undefeated streak with two straight graded stakes wins on Hollywood's Cushion Track. And folks might argue - with validity - that switching from turf to a synthetic surface isn't as revealing of a horse's true abilities as a turf-to-conventional dirt switch might be. There is already a precedent for success established by horses moving between turf and synthetic tracks.

The other argument against Nashoba's Key taking command of her division is that Balance, who in my mind was the previous leader of the older female division off her wins earlier in the year in the Santa Margarita and La Canada, ran every bit as well in the Vanity as Nashoba's Key did despite losing by almost a length. There is some truth to this. While Nashoba's Key had to wait, and wait some more, for racing room on the rail, room did appear in the form of a giant opening. Balance, meanwhile, raced three to four wide on the far turn, and that ground loss had to count for something.

But the bottom line for me is that Nashoba's Key has now defeated Balance in their only two meetings (the first time was by more than five lengths in last month's Milady Breeders' Cup). Moreover, Nashoba's Key carries the cachet of an undefeated horse, and while she is already pretty darn good, having raced only five times, it is likely her best is still in front of her.

I suppose Indian Vale could be construed as a legitimate contender for the top of this division off her recent victory in the Fleur de Lis. But while Indian Vale is talented, she has also thrown in a stinker on occasion and has never beaten an opponent of Balance's quality.

* English Channel's repeat victory in Saturday's Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park only strengthened my belief that he is a horse who is at his best on tighter-turned turf courses.

I came up with this notion before English Channel ran in last month's Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park, where the turf courses offer wide, sweeping turns. And while English Channel ran well to narrowly miss in the Manhattan, he did not win.

Some could say this idea about English Channel preferring tight turns is preposterous and point to his win in last fall's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational. But last year's Turf Classic attracted a bad field that English Channel couldn't help but dominate. And it might be noteworthy that two of the only three times in this country that English Channel finished worse than third since becoming a stakes horse occurred at Belmont.

Whether this thought has merit or is completely crazy, it is English Channel's good fortune that this year's Breeders' Cup Turf will be run at Monmouth.

* Because of a wet track that appeared to be changing in terms of relative speed, it is difficult to assess Calder Race Course's four big Summit of Speed races. Sheets upset the Grade 3 Azalea Breeders' Cup, completing six furlongs over a sloppy, sealed track in 1:10.40. The older, presumably better females in the Grade 1 Princess Rooney Handicap, run an hour later over a track upgraded to good one race earlier, went the six furlongs in 1:10.66 after an early pace very similar to the Azalea's. Yet the Beyer folks, obviously thinking the track had become a tad slower as it dried out to good, assigned a winning figure of 97 to both races.

This is an important point because it underscores the changing nature of Calder's track Saturday, and affects the analysis of the Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap and Grade 2 Carry Back Stakes for 3-year-olds, races that figure to have a more profound impact on the sprint division.

Although Black Seventeen was dead game turning back a determined Teuflesberg in the Carry Back, Mach Ride's upset of the Smile, his second straight big win since getting blinkers, was more impressive visually because he walloped such highly ranked sprinters as Smokey Stover and Fabulous Strike. Yet after comparable early fractions in both races, Mach Ride actually completed the six furlongs slightly slower than Black Seventeen did, 1:09.89 to 1:09.84.

Understandably, the Beyer boys treated both races straight up, and assigned Black Seventeen a 110, and Mach Ride a 108. But if the track got a bit slower when it dried out between the Azalea and the Princess Rooney, who's to say the same didn't happen between the Carry Back and the Smile? And you thought making speed figures was easy.

In any event, the big wins and notable losses in the Smile and Carry Back, combined with Bilo's upset of Surf Cat in the Triple Bend Invitational at Hollywood Park, and High Finance's big breakthrough in the Tom Fool Breeders' Cup at Belmont last Wednesday, has thrown the sprint division completely wide open.