02/08/2010 12:00AM

Quality Road steps up to fill void

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NEW YORK - It took only 37 days into 2010 to see something that we didn't see in all 365 days of 2009, and that was a truly special performance by an older male. I am speaking, of course, of Quality Road's dazzling exhibition in Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

Last year's handicap division was the weakest in years. Einstein was a thoroughly admirable racehorse, but it said something that he was one of 2009's three older male Eclipse Award finalists despite not having won a main-track race after his Santa Anita Handicap score in March, or having won a race of any sort after May. The same is true of another finalist in this division last year, Kodiak Kowboy. He had a fine year in 2009, winning three Grade 1 races, and he won the vote for champion sprinter. But it speaks volumes that Kodiak Kowboy was also a finalist in the older male division, a division that emphasizes success going long on the main track, when he didn't even start in a race beyond a mile or around two turns. And don't get me started on Gio Ponti. Nothing against this highly accomplished turf horse, but I still think it sends the wrong message that he was voted champion older male of 2009 on the basis of a loss, his second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. We have to presume Gio Ponti was given this divisional title on that basis, because he didn't win a main-track race of any sort last year.

Perhaps the best performance last year by an older horse was Rail Trip's victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Rail Trip spread-eagled a big field in that important race, winning in dominating style with a strong final time. I, for one, thought Rail Trip's Hollywood Gold Cup was much more like what should be required from a champion older male than anything Gio Ponti, Kodiak Kowboy, or Einstein managed in 2009. That's why I voted for Rail Trip, even if it was his only big win of the year. That was one more big main-track win going long than Gio Ponti or Kodiak Kowboy had, and it was better than Einstein's one main-track victory. But that shows you what I know. Rail Trip wasn't even one of the three finalists.

It was against this backdrop that Quality Road did what he did in the Donn. Still, his performance would have thrilled even if it hadn't been a while since we had seen an older male turn in a genuinely huge performance like this one. Granted, the field Quality Road crushed Saturday was not full of Grade 1 winners, and he did get a perfect trip, and in a weird sort of way. Edgar Prado, who in the race before had ridden the disqualified Take the Points in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, did Quality Road a big favor in the Donn by sending Past the Point to the lead and giving him a target to track. It still doesn't matter.

What does matter is the way Quality Road ran away from his competition to win by almost 13 lengths, and the way he broke his own track record. What matters is that Quality Road's performance was good for a Beyer Figure of 121, which makes it the highest Beyer beyond a mile since Commentator and Saint Liam earned 123s in their battle in the Whitney Handicap in 2005. That takes in some territory. Since then, we've had a couple of pretty nice handicap champions in Invasor and Curlin.

It is worth noting that no one who has followed Quality Road from the beginning was really surprised by what he did in the Donn, because he has been special from the start. He made his debut the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2008 on the same Aqueduct card that saw Old Fashioned run away with the Remsen, and Harlem Rocker (also trained by Pletcher) disqualified from first in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. But instead of focusing on them, many came away raving about how good Quality Road looked winning at first asking.

Quality Road would have been no worse than second choice in last year's Kentucky Derby off strong scores last winter in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and he would have definitely been the favorite after I Want Revenge scratched. But Quality Road missed the Derby due to quarter cracks. And even when he ran well following his return last summer (there was certainly nothing wrong with his sharp second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup), it always felt like Quality Road was doing it solely on class because he was one race behind everyone else and was being rushed in an effort to catch up.

Well, Quality Road is on schedule now, which is great news for fans of top horses, and bad news for his contemporaries. So is the decision by his connections to resist the temptation of the $10 million Dubai World Cup in favor of giving their colt every opportunity to be a major force throughout this U.S. season. Several U.S.-based horses have used the Donn as a springboard to the Dubai Cup, and most, like all other U.S,-based horses who have gone to the Dubai World Cup, were never the same after the trip. Quality Road won't be subjected to such risk. The plan is for him to remain here and point to the Metropolitan Mile. Good luck beating him in that race.

So, what we saw Saturday signals a dramatic shift in the potential dynamic of the 2010 racing season. Now, 2010 won't only be about Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. This year will also be about Quality Road. And Quality Road bypassing Dubai suggests that on at least some level, his people are optimizing his chances at Horse of the Year honors. That's understandable because - and let's be honest here - the Quality Road we saw in the Donn is, with all due respect to Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, the best horse in training.