08/05/2009 11:00PM

Presious Passion a neutralizing force


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In college - many, many years ago - I could often tell the quality of a team in intramural athletics by its name. Matched against "The Center for English As A Second Language" in soccer, I correctly sensed that matchup would be a loss. And in basketball, our team - a group of racetrackers that were more adept at reading past performances than shooting 3-pointers - cringed at the thought of playing "40 Minutes of Hell," a team that proved aptly named, with it nonstop, pressing defense and running offense.

So it is in stark contrast that my choice in Saturday's Arlington Million is named Presious Passion, a name that would suggest he is a cupcake.

Rather, he is the equivalent of "40 minutes of hell" - but for two minutes, the approximate time it will take to the complete the Million. He never lets up, going full throttle from the start, and breaking the spirits of those chasing him and taking them out of their comfort zones.

The reason is because he doesn't run how elite turf horses typically run - that is, slow early and fast late. He runs off, opening up commanding leads, and leaving many wondering if he is going to stop like he has been shot at the top of the stretch.

The thing is - he rarely does. In winning last month's United Nation's Stakes, he went the opening half-mile in 45.20 seconds - an almost unheard of winning split for a 1 3/8-mile race - and though he was fatigued late, so were those chasing him, and he crossed the wire two lengths in front.

Realistically, there is no way to counter what Presious Passion does - because to go with him would ruin one's chances. He's like a rabbit, only the classiest one you'll ever find.

Helen Pitts, who trains Einstein, one of the favorites, said of Presious Passion: "You can only ride your horse and hope you can run him down. Having him in there kind of throws things off."

He does throw things off, which is what makes handicapping the Million so challenging. Most of these runners are accustomed to running how most turf horses do - that is, by relaxing early, and with the race turning into a test of who can quicken best over the final quarter-mile.

But when Presious Passion is in a turf race, and usually up by 10 entering the second turn, the race is more of a test of who can quicken enough over a half-mile or more.

His style, while not only effective for him, neutralizes the strengths of his opponents.

Admittedly, the Million will be the toughest test yet to Presious Passion. He faces a top-class international field, led by Gio Ponti, who easily won the Man o' War with wide trip.

Because of Gio Ponti's achievements - and those of Einstein - they should be the targets of opposing riders. They have to watch them and hope that Presious Passion will come back to the field.

With Presious Passion 6-1 on the morning line, I'll take the chance he does what he regularly does - remain in front from start to finish.

Denomination a value play

A race earlier on the Arlington card, fillies and mares are in the spotlight in the Beverly D.

With the North American horses appearing substandard compared to those assembled for prior renewals of this race, my choice is French invader Denomination. A Group 3 winner overseas at 1 1/8 miles, she is well suited to the 1 3/16-mile distance of the Beverly D., and being a 3-year-old matched against elders, she may be overlooked.

That could be a mistake. French horses are typically among the most effective European invaders, and Denomination has shown she can handle firmer ground. She also has a American-style pedigree, being by Smart Strike out of a Storm Cat mare, and could be ready for a leap forward.

At 8-1 on the morning line, she is the value.

Smooth Air brings consistency

Turning to Saratoga, I see vulnerability in favored Commentator in the Whitney, potentially creating value on Smooth Air, who is 4-1 on the morning line.

Although beaten as the favorite most recently in the Salvator Mile at Monmouth, he lost little in defeat. He simply could not catch Coal Play, who made the lead effortlessly.

Smooth Air might be one of the least appreciated older horses in training, though he did gain some measure of respect with a win in the Gulfstream Park Handicap earlier in the year.

Despite that win and a triumph in the Ohio Derby last year, he is not a national name, perhaps because so often he has raced in Florida.

His numbers tell an other story. His Beyer Speed Figures indicate that he is among the fastest and most consistent dirt horses around.

I envision him getting a favorable stalking trip behind pacesetters Tizway and Commentator and getting the jump on the closers in the stretch.

As for Commentator - at age 8 and coming off three straight Beyers of 97 or less - age might finally be catching up to him.

Eventually it catches up with us all.