10/05/2006 12:00AM

Major prep day has lost some luster

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NEW YORK - There are only two days on the 2006 American racing calendar with eight Grade 1 stakes races: Nov. 4, when the eight Breeders' Cup races will be run at Churchill Downs, and Oct. 7, a sort of national Breeders' Cup Preview Day with five Grade 1's at Belmont, two at Keeneland, and one at Oak Tree.

Unfortunately, the similarities between the two days pretty much end there. Saturday's eight Grade 1's will feature about 50 horses running for $4.3 million, while the octet four weeks later will draw about 100 running for $20 million. Fans who were expecting a competitive day of championship racing this Saturday may be somewhat disappointed when they actually sit down to handicap the races, which include a grand total of 29 starters before scratches in Belmont's five Grade 1's.

A combination of factors, including the increasing regionalization of major fall racing and the ongoing trend of shorter campaigns and longer layoffs into the Breeders' Cup, has downsized the quality of so-called Super Saturday.

The primary disappointment is the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which drew 14 nominations but just four entrants. It's a sad day for American racing when the Gold Cup, a race that has crowned more champion older males and Horses of the Year than any other, draws a field consisting of one Maktoum 3-year-old, one Coolmore 3-year-old, and two older second-stringers from Nick Zito's barn.

It's understandable that no one is eager to run against Bernardini, but whatever happened to running the best against the best more than once a year? Nor is running second in the Gold Cup an unworthy ambition, and if Dylan Thomas and his entirely turf pedigree don't take to the dirt, there are probably two dozen horses in training who would at least be competitive to complete the exacta.

With so many competing options, it is simply too easy for top horses to stay at home and duck one another until Breeders' Cup Day. (Nor does it help when a single family owns Bernardini, Discreet Cat, Henny Hughes, Invasor, and Jazil, none of whom has ever appeared in a common starting gate.) The Gold Cup now gets diluted by races such as the Kentucky Cup Classic, which drew logical Gold Cup possibilities such as Premium Tap and Perfect Drift, and the Goodwood, which preempted a start outside California before Breeders' Cup Day for Lava Man. As both of those races now have enriched purses, the $750,000 Gold Cup has become merely the best of three regional preps for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This all makes for not only less interesting and bettable racing, but also for a severe diminution in the testing of our best horses. It is impossible to knock Bernardini or the way he has been handled, or to deny the brilliance of a horse who has won the Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers by a combined 22 lengths. On the other hand, unless Dylan Thomas is that rare horse of world-class quality on both grass and dirt, by Sunday we still will have no idea how Bernardini will respond if he encounters a single straw in his path or a rival of genuine quality.

Now is the time when an exceptional 3-year-old should be stepping up against top older horses. Instead, the first two older horses Bernardini will meet are Wanderin Boy and Andromeda's Hero, and it appears that he will have exactly one truly competitive assignment in his career, when he makes what will probably be his final start before retirement in the Classic.

The days when horses established their quality with repeated tests against the best simply seem to be gone, and it's all the more frustrating because there's plenty of quality out there. Between the 3-year-olds Bernardini and Discreet Cat and the older horses Lava Man and Invasor, this could have been an exceptional autumn. Instead, Bernardini and Discreet Cat are unlikely ever to meet, and a single showdown next month among Bernardini, Lava Man, and possibly Invasor is the most we can hope for.

Bernardini will be one of several heavy favorites in Saturday's Gradeo1 feast. English Channel in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Circular Quay in Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity loom short prices, and Silver Train and Henny Hughes will take almost all the money in a five-horse Vosburgh. In all but one of the eight races, more than half the field will be in search of their first American Grade 1 triumph.

That one exception is a six-horse field, but a superb one, in the Beldame for older fillies at Belmont. The best race in a strong division this year, the Beldame drew five Grade 1 winners in Balletto, Fleet Indian, Round Pond, Sweet Symphony, and Take D' Tour, with dual Grade 1 runner-up Teammate completing the field. It's enough to remind you of the days when they called this the Belmont Fall Championship Meeting.