07/12/2009 11:00PM

Rail Trip proves the experts wrong


NEW YORK - There was a lot of noteworthy stakes racing on Saturday. Here are impressions on some of major races, moving geographically, from West to East:

I will be the first to admit that I did not think Rail Trip wanted any part of 1 1/4 miles, at least at this stage of his career. Well, if you're going to be wrong, you might as well be way wrong. Rail Trip was strong winning the 10-furlong Hollywood Gold Cup decisively at Hollywood Park. And since Rail Trip got his last quarter-mile in a very decent 24.76 seconds, and completed the distance in a track record 2:00.75, it's not like he backed into anything. This was a well-earned score, and perhaps the breakthrough performance this year's handicap division has sorely needed.

At the same time, there weren't many people who knew all along that Rail Trip would get 1 1/4 miles in a Grade 1 race. Oh, some folks will probably tell you they knew he would . . . after Saturday's race. But Rail Trip, who was the betting favorite in the first seven starts of his career, paid $21.40, so his bandwagon had emptied some. And I would feel a tiny bit better about this Gold Cup if Life Is Sweet, the filly who came from way back to finish a distant third, wasn't the only horse in the race to change her position in any sort of meaningful way. Check the chart, you will see what I mean.

For a race that had a lot of speed on paper, it's weird how the pace in the Royal Heroine Mile, the supporting feature to the Hollywood Gold Cup, was not at all fast, and how the first two finishers went around the track two-one. For the first time in this country, Tuscan Evening conceded the early lead to the improving Patricia's Gem. So that Tuscan Evening was still able to get up and edge that opponent only makes her more dangerous down the road.

Just as Well's position going into the Arlington Handicap at Arlington Park was slightly reminiscent of the position his Eclipse Award barn-mate Forever Together was in at this time last year. With the powerful finish she showed finishing third at a huge price in last year's Grade 1 Just a Game, Forever Together tipped that she was about to become a force in her division. With strong finishes in his only two starts this year going as far as 1 1/8 miles, Just as Well was telling everyone he was ready to pop once he got more ground. He got that additional ground in the 10-furlong Arlington Cap, and he was much the best beating a decent field. And I think Just as Well is capable of even better, because I think he throttled it down a bit in the late stages Saturday.

Not sure if he was beating much, but Reb was a real eye-opener in the American Derby, which along with the Modesty and Arlington Handicap made up the three big races in Saturday's Arlington Million Preview card. Reb had to steady and angle outside everyone inside the eighth pole, a change of course of about six paths, and yet still produced a furious late kick to get up. It makes you wonder how many lengths Reb would have won by if he had a clean trip.

Pure Clan is ready to tackle better after dominating the Modesty as the heavy favorite. But I'm not so sure about Dynaforce, who finished third as the second choice in the betting. I didn't like Dynaforce's comeback in the Gallorette, and after never even getting by pacesetter Tizaqueena Saturday, Dynaforce doesn't look close to the Grade 1 horse she was last year.

It's funny how not one the four big stakes on Saturday card at Calder Race Course, billed as the Summit of Speed, was won by a front-runner. The closest any front-runner came to winning was Kays and Jays in the Azalea, who courageously won the pace battle, but lost the war to First Passage.

The one who was closest to the pace and won one of the four big Calder stakes Saturday was Eaton's Gift, who upset the Smile Sprint Handicap. This was a surprise, and not only because Eaton's Gift was the second longest shot on the board. Eaton's Gift chased pacesetter Ikigai early, but fell back on the turn like he was ripe to finish closer to last than first. But Eaton's Gift refocused, and in the end he comfortably contained a flat Benny the Bull, who failed at odds-on. Benny the Bull had none of the spark he had when second to Fabulous Strike in the True North on Belmont Stakes Day. But both he and Fabulous Strike raced on the rail that day, which was by far the best part of the track.

I fully expect Papa Clem to improve on his third as the favorite in Saturday's Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park. This race was, after all, just a prep. But that might not help him in relation to Atomic Rain, given how good that rival is at the moment. Atomic Rain's overwhelming score in the Long Branch was his second straight such win at Monmouth since his 16th in the Kentucky Derby.

There's no doubt about it now. After making Saturday's Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park (where there were also five maiden races on the Saturday card) his third straight Grade 1 victory of the year, Gio Ponti has surpassed Einstein as the top turf male in the country. Gio Ponti won going away despite failing to save even an inch of ground.

That said, next time for Grand Couturier. He's now primed to win Saratoga's Sword Dancer for a third straight year, even if Gio Ponti is in it.