10/17/2007 11:00PM

Old friends from back home

EmailNEW YORK - Most horseplayers probably have a love/hate relationship with their local statebreds. We certainly do in New York. We dread the mind-numbing parades of hopeless maidens and 1-for-lifers who make up a sadly burgeoning share of the daily race cards, but take a little bit of extra pride and pleasure when a runner foaled on Empire State soil makes good on the national stage.

The exploits of a Cupecoy's Joy, Win, Fourstardave, and Funny Cide are all the sweeter because they were New York-breds, and not just because of blindly rooting for the home team. Statebred racing is in many senses a throwback to the more regional racing of a generation ago, when you got to know (and love or hate) your local horses by seeing their careers unfold on your local circuit. It's harder to get attached to horses who make a handful of starts overall and are whisked around the country to be strategically showcased before an early retirement.

Thanks to the generous purses for restricted races and additional owner, breeder, and stallion awards, it usually makes more sense to keep racing top statebreds than to retire them. (It also helps that many of the males are gelded.) When the best of any state's homegrowns are assembled for events like the Cal Cup or the Maryland Million or Saturday's New York Showcase Day at Belmont, the fields are not only unusually full but also unusually familiar.

Several of Saturday's races at Belmont have that family-reunion feeling. The older-male grass division has a veteran core of comforting old warriors who can make a good living mixing it up five or six times a year in races such as the Kingston, the Ashley T. Cole, the West Point, and Saturday's Mohawk. At the age of 6, the geldings Dave and Pa Pa Da have run in those four races a combined 17 times over the last three years, and by now we know them almost as well as if they were pets. This year they're joined by some youngsters such as the 3-year-olds Al Basha, Pays to Dream, and Spurred, who are likely to be the dominant figures in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 editions of those races.

The two richest veterans on Saturday's lineup are Gold and Roses ($750,744) in the six-furlong Hudson Handicap, and Naughty New Yorker ($833,139) in the featured Empire Classic. They've made a combined 66 starts, all but four of them within the state's borders. They've also only tried graded stakes company a combined four times, without a victory, though Naughty New Yorker was second to Magna Graduate in the Grade 3 Excelsior last spring.

The two most accomplished New York-breds in training are waiting a week to run in that other stakes festival, the one known as the Breeders' Cup. Oprah Winney has a fighting chance in Friday's Filly and Mare Sprint, and Commentator is cross-entered in that day's Dirt Mile but likelier to try the Sprint the next day. Two other New York-breds were pre-entered in Cup races but are shaky to start, much less contend: Cannonball is the ninth also-eligible for the Juvenile Turf, and Overextended is 10th on that list and the second also-eligible for the Juvenile. A Breeders' Cup victory by any of those four would be a first for a New York-bred (Friendly Island just missed at 58-1 in last year's Sprint).

Since the F&M Sprint and Dirt Mile are ungraded, it will probably take a victory by Commentator in the Sprint to keep alive a streak that is in jeopardy with just 10 weeks left in 2007. At least one New York-bred has won a Grade 1 stakes race in the United States every year since 1996: Victory Speech in 1997, Lucky Roberto in 1998, Circle of Life in 1999, Critical Eye in 2000 and 2001, Carson Hollow in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003 and 2004, Friends Lake in 2004, Acey Deucey and Commentator in 2005, and Behaving Badly and Fleet Indian last year.

This year, nothing yet. Four statebreds have won graded stakes this year - Friendly Island in the Palos Verdes, Oprah Winney in the Barbara Fritchie, J'ray in the Bayou Breeders' Cup, and Mission Approved in the Saranac - but those were all Grade 2 or Grade 3 events.

On the other hand, a New York-bred may be the most widely viewed racehorse of Breeders' Cup week. When the nation's longest-running daytime television talk show does a brief segment on racing scheduled to run next week, the star won't be Street Sense or Curlin, but the host's namesake: Oprah Winney is going to be featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The F&M Sprint may not be a Grade 1 race, but that's Grade 1 exposure.