08/12/2008 12:00AM

Keep it simple in Saratoga Grade 1's

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Realistically, the heart of the historic Saratoga meet begins Saturday when the $600,000 Alabama Stakes kicks off a run of 11 Grade 1 stakes during the final three weeks.

Four of those Grade 1's, most notably the $1 million Travers, will be part of Aug. 23-24 weekend, while the final weekend - Labor Day weekend - will have four more. Among them will be the $500,000 Woodward on Aug. 30, the principal summer target for the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin.

I bring Saratoga's high-class stakes races to your attention because the majority of these Grade 1 events regularly provide horseplayers with a series of time-honored puzzles that have one thing in common that may be overlooked in the modern world of computer-based handicapping tools and sophisticated methods: For the most part, prime contenders usually can be identified through traditional, straightforward approaches that have been around for decades.

Consider, that the Alabama is one of very few races in America that challenges 3-year-old fillies to negotiate 1 1/4 miles. In most years the winner can be identified with speed figures taking a back seat to stoutly bred, well-prepped fillies in the hands of trainers who have pointed specifically for this race more than any of the popular spring races at nine furlongs.

Last year, trainer Carl Nafzger won this race with Lady Joanne in a tight fit over Lear's Princess and Octave, a pair of accomplished fillies who had finished close together in the hard-fought Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont. Lady Joanne skipped that race to run instead at Saratoga in the $78,000 Banshee Breeze stakes, named for Nafzger's 1998 Alabama winner. Nafzger, it should be pointed out, earned his 2008 election to the Hall of Fame by pointing his best horses for nationally prominent Grade 1 stakes via well-designed prep races.

In 2006, the stoutly bred Pine Island might not have had a race over the track, but she regularly trained at Saratoga and had given every indication in her spring races against the best in the division that she was a perfect match for 10 furlongs. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, an expert trainer of fillies, also has a been a prolific winner of Grade 1 route stakes for more than two decades.

This year's Alabama cast is likely to include, Little Belle and Music Note, both daughters of 1992 Belmont Stakes/ Breeders' Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy who are trained by Saeed bin Suroor; Mushka, a daughter of 2003 Belmont stakes winner Empire Maker; Proud Spell, a multiple winner of nine-furlong stakes, including the Kentucky Oaks, trained by Larry Jones; and possibly Skylighter, a rapidly improving allowance winner at Belmont trained by Bobby Frankel, and Sweet Vendetta, winner of the nine-furlong Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico in May, trained by Gary Contessa.

Of these, the aptly bred Music Note was so impressive winning the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont that Godolphin Stable has been considering passing the Alabama and instead taking on males in the Travers on Aug. 23. If Music Note runs in the Alabama, she would seem the preferred choice. If she opts for the Travers, the steady Proud Spell would be the logical alternative, although she has had an active six-race campaign this year and will face pace pressure from Little Belle at a distance that may test her to the limit.

Should that pace scenario develop, Mushka could be an intriguing threat at a relatively big price in this compact field. By all indications, Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott has been pointing Mushka for the Alabama, and she certainly is bred to relish 10 furlongs.

On Alabama Day, Saratoga will offer one other Grade 1 stakes, the $500,000 Sword Dancer. This is an important 1 1/2-mile turf test that now provides a Win and You're In ticket to the $3 million BC Turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. A strong, deep field is expected, including the venerable 9-year-old, Better Talk Now, winner of the 2004 BC Turf, who was most recently a good third behind 2006 BC winner Red Rocks and Curlin in the Grade 1 Man o' War at Belmont Park on July 12. Red Rocks, who came back to America to score a strong stretch-running victory in the Man o' War last month, is also expected for the Sword Dancer.

Also likely to run are Presious Passion, front-running winner of the United Nations at Monmouth Park July 5; the Mott trained Equitable, third in the United Nations; Bobby Frankel's Grade 2 winner Champs Elysees, who was sixth in the UN; the McGaughey-trained Dancing Forever, winner of the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard; Grand Couturier, longshot winner of the 2007 Sword Dancer who was sixth in the recent Man o' War; and Hostess, a 5-year-old mare with a pair of thirds in Grade 2 stakes behind Mauralakana, winner of the Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington Park last Saturday.

While comparing the form of these world-class turf horses, some players will gravitate towards a possible repeat score by the longshot Grand Couturier, who won this race last year off a sixth-place finish in a minor stakes last summer. Others might favor Presious Passion to repeat his front-running score at Monmouth. But while such upsets obviously could occur, more traditional, straightforward handicapping suggests that the two BC Turf winners - Better Talk Now and Red Rocks - should dominate this race on class grounds, an important, often-forgotten trump card in grass races at every level. At the same time, a wet turf course probably would eliminate Better Talk Now from serious consideration.

A week later, the Travers will provide its usual handicapping test involving class, pace, breeding, and speed-figure comparisons. But most of all, the Travers tends to accent recent prep-race performances, most notably the performances of horses who ran in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 27, or the Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 3.

Certainly, we would prefer to see Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown in this race off his Haskell victory. But his connections are passing the race in favor of an easier assignment. That said, this Travers seem to be a rematch of the Jim Dandy.

Although Macho Again outfinished Pyro on a wet track in the Jim Dandy, there was not much separating the two, and it is difficult to make a good case for any other horse winning the 10-furlong Travers, unless of course Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito has another trick up his sleeve.

That, in fact, is the underlying point that is a common denominator to good handicapping in these traditional Saratoga stakes: Trainers with proven form at the level, or with certain types of horses who fit these races, tend to win them over and over again.

Last year for instance, the Nafzger-trained Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense prepped for his Travers victory by winning the Jim Dandy, following a previous pattern Nafzger used to win the 2000 Travers with Unshaded.

If you want more illustrations, check out McGaughey's Travers wins with Easy Goer ('89), Rhythm ('90), and Coronado's Quest ('98); D. Wayne Lukas's scores with Corporate Report ('91) and Thunder Gulch ('95); Wally Dollase's pair of Travers wins with Deputy Commander ('97) and Ten Most Wanted ('03); Mack Miller's Java Gold ('87) and Sea Hero ('93); plus these relatively recent Travers victories by prolific Grade 1-winning trainers, Bob Baffert with Point Given in 2001; Bobby Frankel with Medaglia d'Oro in 2002; Zito with Birdstone in 2004; and Todd Pletcher with Flower Alley in 2005.

In recent Alabama history we could find a similar list of prolific Grade 1-winning trainers, including multiple winners McGaughey, Nafzger, Lukas, and Allen Jerkens, plus other recent Alabama winners trained by Baffert, Frankel, and Mott. Moreover, the same credibility should be given to horses trained by prolific Grade 1-winning trainers in most of Saratoga's historically important Grade 1 stakes from now to the end of the meet.