08/18/2008 12:00AM

Proud Spell proves her heart


NEW YORK - Saturday's Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, which featured a truly thrilling battle between Proud Spell and Music Note, clearly demonstrated that there is really only one proper way in this sport for anyone to prove they have the best horse: on the track. Not by verbally jousting though the media, not by coercing the other to meet a race schedule fashioned to suit your desires, and not by winning a Jockey Club Gold Cup that lacks the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, or even a Breeders' Cup Classic left hollow by the absence of the reigning Classic winner and Horse of the Year.

The connections of Music Note could have passed on the Alabama, waited a week, and run instead in this Saturday's Travers Stakes against males. A lot of people, including yours truly, were rooting for that to happen. Music Note, who was unbeaten and unchallenged in all four of her starts at a mile or more, would have injected some much-needed pizzazz into a Travers that this year is coming up long on quantity and short on quality. Most importantly, she would have had a heck of a shot to win it.

But the decision to run Music Note against Proud Spell in the Alabama instead of against males in the Travers, while perhaps the more conservative course to take, in retrospect proved equally sporting. That is so because it enabled the two best 3-year-old fillies in the country to meet face to face and - barring anything bizarre happening - settle the question, without question, of which one is currently the best.

Proud Spell was the leader of her division from the time that she handed last year's champion 2-year-old filly, Indian Blessing, the first defeat of her career in the Fair Grounds Oaks until Music Note answered her mediocre Delaware Oaks win with an 11-length romp in the CCA Oaks. And Proud Spell showed on Saturday that, at least for now, she is back on top.

Unlike the first time Proud Spell and Music Note met in the Mother Goose, which Music Note won comfortably after Proud Spell was seriously compromised by a terrible trip and a passive ride, there were no extenuating circumstances in the Alabama. Proud Spell prompted the pace set by Music Note's entrymate, Little Belle, as Music Note sat a little farther back. Proud Spell took over nearing the stretch, and Music Note tipped out to go after her. And when Music Note drew abreast of Proud Spell in the stretch, it meant that both fillies had every chance to win, with neither having even a whiff of an excuse. It came down to a display of heart on Proud Spell's part that won't soon be forgotten. Proud Spell simply would not let Music Note pass.

There was also a show of courage in Saturday's co-feature at Saratoga, the Sword Dancer Invitational, from Grand Couturier. Grand Couturier was trying to come up the rail on tiring pacesetter Presious Passion in upper stretch when the door closed, forcing Grand Couturier to be taken up and angled to the outside. The loss of momentum that Grand Couturier suffered at such a critical point in the race should not be underestimated, so it is much to his credit that he was able to re-rally effectively enough to still win by daylight.

But that is where the similarities between the Alabama and Sword Dancer end. While the Alabama firmly re-established Proud Spell at the top of her class, the Sword Dancer helped underscore how the male turf division is like a rudder-less ship right now. Red Rocks is probably the current leader of this division because the Man o' War Stakes he won last month was arguably the strongest turf race run in North America so far this year. But Red Rocks, who was withdrawn from the Sword Dancer because of a left hind ankle issue, doesn't exactly inspire the kind of confidence that makes you believe he's capable of going on a run to take firm control of his class.

Without taking anything away from what Grand Couturier accomplished Saturday, that he won the Sword Dancer for the second straight year was as much a credit to what trainer Bobby Ribaudo can do when he gets something to work with. There is, after all, a glaring disparity between what Grand Couturier has accomplished at Saratoga, and how he has struggled elsewhere.

I also don't want to take anything away from Sword Dancer runner-up Better Talk Now, who I believe still has a lot of life left in his 9-year-old legs. Although it wasn't as serious as Grand Couturier's traffic trouble, it certainly didn't help Better Talk Now when he was fanned very wide into the stretch Saturday. And it should be noted that he would have been right there in the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Stakes Day - and might have even won - were he not stopped cold in deep stretch. But the fact remains that Better Talk Now is still looking for his first win of 2008.