11/25/2009 12:00AM

Savoring a final helping of top-level stakes races


The Breeders' Cup is wonderful, yes. So, too, are Arlington Million weekend and other holiday weekends. But this weekend is one we give thanks for, and I'm not talking about the gustatory delights.

I'm talking about the major racing in New York, Kentucky, and California, which in many ways gives a cymbal crash to the year, a symbolic ending of the campaign as the next "season" gets under way with the advent of Santa Anita and Gulfstream.

Surely Hollywood's prime events this weekend, the Grade 1 Matriarch on Saturday and the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on Sunday, put a fitting end to the holiday weekend, the proverbial cherry on the cake. As always, they are competitive and intriguing.


No doubt Ventura will be the sentimental choice as Humberto Ascanio saddles her for his former boss, the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who passed away last week.

But there's a lot more to Ventura than mere sentimentality that figures to send her off somewhere around even-money: there's Ventura herself.

Here you have a top-class turf miler who could as easily have had an impact on the BC Mile, even if you don't think she would have beaten Goldikova.

She's so good, she won the BC Filly and Mare Sprint in 2008 and was second in that race this year (to Informed Decision) but may actually be better on turf.

Last year, she won the Grade 1 Just a Game (at a mile on the turf no less), beating eventual Grade 1 BC Filly and Mare Turf winner and Eclipse Award-winning turf distaffer Forever Together. She was second to top male Rahy's Attorney in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile prior to her BC Filly and Mare Sprint win.

This year, she was as good or better. She was second, beaten just a nose by males in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile. The horse who nipped her? Only Gio Ponti, who would go on to win multiple Grade 1 turf races and looks a cinch to be champion turf horse. Then, prior to her second in this year's BC Filly and Mare Sprint, she beat the boys in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile and did so in grand fashion, blasting home from far back to win going away. In other words, someone's going to have to come up big to keep the Hollywood ending from happening.

There is a candidate, however. Diamondrella, now in the barn of champion-rider-turned-trainer Gary Stevens, is proven top-class going a mile on the turf, too. She won this year's Grade 1 Just a Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard, just like Ventura the previous year. And, just like Ventura, she beat champion Forever Together in the process.

She rallied from far back to win Keeneland's Grade 1 First Lady on Oct. 10, also at a mile on the turf, beating champion Forever Together again. In other words, she's really good.

She tried boys in the BC Turf Sprint to no avail. She was squeezed back at the start to get away last of 14 and never got going, finishing 11th. However, she was not only facing males and giving them a headstart, but it was the first time she had seen the peculiar Santa Anita hillside turf course. Turns out, she was a fish out of water.

That won't be the case in the Matriarch. She'll be back in her comfort zone. Back in versus girls, and back going a mile.

These two figure to sit back early and should both find clear sailing turning for home, while swinging out for an unobstructed run and hitting the turbo jets. It should be quite a stretch drive.

Hollywood Derby

While the Matriarch may be an affirmation of top-drawer ability, the Derby is more a litmus test on who may next reach such heights.

Courageous Cat, second in the Grade 1 BC Mile, may not be here, but most all of the other major 3-year-old turf protagonists are lined up.

One aspect you would expect to help get separation is this longer trip - the race is 1 1/4 miles. However, if anything, that might keep this group compact, since so many of the major players are proven at this type of distance. Take the Points and Black Bear Island ran first and second, respectively, separated by just a head, in the 10-furlong, Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington on Aug. 8. Black Bear Island also won the Group 2 Dante Stakes in England at 1 5/16 miles. Battle of Hastings won the 10-furlong, Grade 2 Virginia Derby. Al Khali won Saratoga's Grade 3 Saranac going almost this far (1 3/16 miles).

In other words, it may come down to trip. Take the Points has shown more tactical speed than some of the others, and that may mean the Todd Pletcher trainee can get first run on the closers.

Then again, Battle of Hastings may be the most consistent 3-year-old turfer in the land, and a strong rallying second in Santa Anita's Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby on Nov. 7 shows he's as sharp as ever.

Black Bear Island may be the most intriguing. Guided to the Epsom Derby by top Euro trainer Aiden O'Brien, he finished 10th of 12 that day, 13 1/2 lengths behind superstar and European Horse of the Year Sea the Stars. Now under the care of trainer Julio Canani, this guy skipped the Oak Tree Derby. He instead prepped for this when a deceivingly good sixth in a blanket photo against elders at Santa Anita on Oct. 7 (He surged late and was beaten just a half-length at a mile, a trip surely short of his preferred distance). No doubt that race was used with this in mind.

But whoever prevails, be it one of the aforementioned or someone like Rendezvous or Meteore who have also flashed big-time ability, he'll have taken down an important race and maybe stamped himself a horse to watch come 2010.