01/05/2009 12:00AM

Outlook for '09 gives big edge to the females


NEW YORK - The good news is, there is reason to be optimistic about what might happen on the track this year. The bad news is, there is equal cause to be concerned.

On the bright side of things, there are two divisions this year that promise to be especially strong. As was the case last year, the older female division looks absolutely loaded for 2009. This division is led, of course, by the undefeated and sensational Zenyatta, who, beyond deserving to be a unanimous choice for champion older female of 2008, was expected to battle Curlin for 2008 Horse of the Year honors. Zenyatta might be the best older female since Personal Ensign 21 years ago, a bold claim supported in part because of her dominance of a division that in 2008 boasted high-quality depth.

And yet the older female division Zenyatta leads into 2009 might be even stronger. There's Cocoa Beach, who in her last three starts of 2008 beat the 2007 older female champion, Ginger Punch, on dirt in the Grade 1 Beldame; was an excellent second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic on a synthetic surface; and then won the Grade 1 Matriarch on turf. Then there's Music Note, one of the top two 3-year-old fillies of 2008 and a fine third in the Ladies' Classic, and maybe Proud Spell, the other top 3-year-old filly of last year, whose connections are contemplating racing her again this season. And on top of that there is Indian Blessing, who won three Grade 1 races in 2008, and Ventura, a Grade 1 winner on turf last year who whipped Indian Blessing in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. You might think of Indian Blessing as a sprinter and Ventura as primarily a turf miler, but don't be surprised to see either one attempt a middle distance on the main track in some important spots this year.

The other division with above-average depth is the female turf division, thanks in no small part to the Cocoa Beach and Ventura. Visit is considered by many to be an impending force in this category off the way she rallied, perhaps prematurely, to the lead in midstretch of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf before winding up fourth, and her rallying third to Cocoa Beach in the Matriarch after being compromised by a slow early pace. But it is Forever Together, winner of the Filly and Mare Turf and who is expected to battle with Breeders' Cup Mile winner Goldikova for the 2008 turf female Eclipse Award, who is the undisputed leader of this group. Forever Together showed unusual versatility winning Grade 1 races at eight, nine, and 10 furlongs last year, and the fact that she never even ran in a grass race until last May suggests that she could get even better. At the start of some years, you can compile top-10 lists for the female and male turf divisions and know there could easily be 10 different names on your list at the end of the season. Not so with Forever Together and company.

Unfortunately, things do not look nearly as rosy at the start of this year for the older male division. The handicap division - one of our true marquee divisions - figured to have trouble this year after the retirements of Curlin and Big Brown, but even after girding yourself against those departures, it's still alarming how soft this group threatens to be.

On his day, Commentator is truly a top-class animal. But he is also brittle, has never really been able to construct a campaign of any continuity, and is 8 now. Those aren't the qualities you would expect to find in a leader of this particular division. But since that is precisely the position Commentator finds himself in, it speaks volumes about the state of the 2009 handicap division. So does the fact that Tiago, an admirable hard-knocker but rarely a winner, might be no worse than number 3 or 4 in this category right now, or that Colonel John, who frankly got lucky when he won the Travers last summer and has made little impact since, is as good if not better than any graduate from the 3-year-old class of 2008.

But it is the 3-year-old class of 2009 that is the cause for most angst. Between now and the time the dust settles after the Belmont Stakes in early June, no division in American racing will be watched and examined more than this group, and there is real cause for worry over whether this division will stand up to scrutiny. Who knows how Midshipman, who won the second slowest Breeders' Cup Juvenile in terms of Beyer Speed Figures since Beyers were published for that race 18 years ago, or Vineyard Haven will survive their winter in Dubai. Pioneerof the Nile's CashCall (nee Hollywood) Futurity got the lowest winning Beyer for ever for the race, and Beyers on this race were first made available 17 years ago. At least Old Fashioned and Quality Road ran reasonably quickly when they won the Remsen and a maiden race on the same day. But Old Fashioned had a very easy trip against weak company in the Remsen, and that was still Quality Road's one and only start. And while it is true Notonthesamepage got an eye-popping 115 Beyer winning Saturday's Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream, it's hard thinking of him as anything but a sprinter.

There will be a winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont this year, and maybe even the same horse will win all three. But right now, it's hard to envision the winner of the Derby being much more than a horse who won a race that had to have a winner. And for those who would note that Big Brown wasn't exactly a household name at this time last year, at least Big Brown had a big win in good final time at a major track in his only start at 2. There are precious few of those around to choose from this year.