09/17/2009 11:00PM

Look for closers in Woodbine stakes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Champs Elysees seeks a Northern Dancer repeat.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - I'm usually a fan of horses with early speed, but that isn't the way I'll handicap the three graded stakes races scheduled to be run at route distances on the turf Sunday at Woodbine.

My research has shown that closers have won more than their fair share of races on that surface at Woodbine. Horses who are up close early are sometimes able to get the job done when a favorable pace scenario exists, but when that isn't the case late-runners usually have the best of it.

The $1 million, Grade 1 Woodbine Mile is the highlight of the card. The winner of this race earns an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

If a horse with early speed wins this race, it is more likely because of a change in the track bias trend than the winner took advantage of a slow pace. The fractions should be quick enough to keep the leaders honest, and they might turn out to be aggressive. Rahy's Attorney is the contender most likely to capitalize if early speed is holding better than it usually does. He defeated Grade 2 opponents in two straight races on the grass at Woodbine, prior to a sixth-place finish as the favorite at that class level last time.

I'll assume that closers have the edge while making my selection. Bribon was a closer in each of his last three races. He won each of them and four of his last five starts. His victory at this distance in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap should give him a class advantage over this field. Although he has raced on turf 11 times, his only recent grass race was a win against $100,000 optional claimers at Saratoga last time. That was his return from a 2 1/2-month layoff, and that performance should set him up nicely for a good effort in this race. He's my selection.

Don't underestimate Ventura. She missed by only a nose when she finished second versus males at Santa Anita two races ago in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe. Consistency is her specialty, with 6 wins, 5 seconds, and a third-place finish from her last 12 races. Her late kick is well suited to the way this race figures to play out.

Sterwins usually runs his race, with 3 wins and 4 second-place finishes versus softer rivals in his last 8 starts. He can earn a slot in the exotics when he rallies from off the pace.

The Grade 1 Northern Dancer is a 1 1/2-mile turf race for 3-year-olds and up. Marchfield finished second and then first against Grade 3 stakes company here, and then finished second and first again in consecutive races against Grade 2 company. His consistency points him out as a prime contender, and his closing style will help, but there are other contenders to consider in this field.

Champs Elysees was up in time to win this race by a nose last year. He is rounding back into form and finished a close second behind Marchfield last time in the Sky Classic. Continued progress would make him a serious threat at ordinary odds. His closing kick fits well here.

Three contenders ran good races against Grade 1 company two races ago and then regressed at that same class level last time. Of this group, Quijano has the best running style, tending to be in midpack early. Marsh Side looks next best of the trio while rating in contention in third or fourth at the first call in most of his recent races. Musketier was either first or second early in each of his last three races, so his connections must hope that his running style does not hinder him.

I'll give a slight edge to Just as Well, a closer who beat Grade 3 company two races ago and then finished second in the Grade 1 Arlington Million last time. If he can avoid regression following that big try, he can rally past the leaders to win.

The day's action starts with the Grade 2 Canadian, a 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares. Forever Together is the class of this field. She shows six Grade 1 stakes races and two Grade 2 stakes races from her last eight starts. She won five of those races, including the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, finished second once, and third twice. She has the right running style as a confirmed closer and should be very hard to beat in this race. She is my top selection.

While it is tempting to look toward the minor exotic slots in an attempt to find betting value in this race, the concern is that the contenders who look best on paper appear to have more early or tactical speed than will probably be good for them. Princess Haya has the preferred running style, but this won't be an easy task as she'll probably need to either match, or surpass, her career-best form to complete this exacta.