03/03/2008 12:00AM

Signs of life in older males

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NEW YORK - It's probably not politically correct to say this, but let's be honest. Some of racing's divisions are more equal than others. There have been many outstanding champion sprinters and female turf horses, but what happens annually in the 3-year-old male division, one of the marquee divisions, attracts more interest and carries greater importance.

The older male division, the handicap division, is another marquee category. So there was a sense of relief after Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap - and the performances by Heatseeker, Go Between, and Champs Elysees finishing first, second, and third - that this year's handicap division might have been saved from a fate of potential irrelevance.

"Might have" and "potential" are the two key qualifiers there. There is no question that Curlin, Horse of the Year last season at 3, holds the key to the 2008 handicap division. Curlin looked good winning his first start of the year last Thursday at Nad Al Sheba. He tracked what looked to be a strong early pace and won in what appeared to be a fast final time while conceding meaningful weight. While his Racing Post Rating fell 3 points below the rough guideline of a 130 rating for Group 1 performers, he was never asked to run. Curlin will be tough to beat in the Dubai World Cup late this month. But the question for North American racing fans, and the connections of capable older horses, is: Will Curlin be able to do what the majority of North American-based horses who have competed in the World Cup could not? (I'm speaking of just the Dubai World Cup here and not the other World Cup Night races - it's important not to blur the distinction.) Will he perform at peak efficiency back in this country this year?

If Curlin can't, then there could be a good chance that we would see a raft of inconsequential handicap races. Daaher, after flopping spectacularly for a second time this year in Saturday's Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct, can no longer be considered a divisional savior. The onus would fall on horses like Grasshopper, who would be charged with fulfilling his potential, and Commentator, who would have to avoid the fragility issues that have plagued him. That's why the performances from Heatseeker, Go Between, and Champs Elysees in the Big Cap were so welcome. Their efforts were of such quality that these horses might have the potential to make a meaningful impact in their division.

"Might have" because these three still have questions to address. Of the 52 starts among these three horses, only one has come on conventional dirt. Until Saturday, Champs Elysees had raced on nothing but turf, Go Between had made 19 of 22 starts on turf, and Heatseeker had raced on grass in half of his 14 starts.

That is not to say these three won't be able to make another transition to dirt. Heatseeker, who made first run at the Big Cap's suicidal pacesetter, Monterey Jazz, and made it stand up, and who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110, has steadily improved since late last year. It might have to do with trainer Jerry Hollendorfer finding a hole card that previous trainer Bobby Frankel did not. Or, it might have to do with Heatseeker finally getting a chance to race a distance: Up until Saturday, the two best races he had run were his only two attempts at distances as far as 1 1/8 miles.

Go Between's strong finish Saturday, which got him to Heatseeker's flank at the wire, combined with his going-away win in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita in late January, dwarf anything he accomplished before. And Champs Elysees likely ran the best race of his life in the Big Cap after spotting the field a head start and then having to check and angle to the rail in the stretch.

The short history of synthetic surfaces in this country has taught us that going from turf to synthetic is much easier than going from turf to dirt. What is less clear is whether going from turf to synthetic can act as a bridge and make it easier to complete a transition to dirt.

In the case of the Big Cap's top three, however, this might be a nonissue. Although we don't know yet what kind of surface Santa Anita will have in place for the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall, there is a chance that whatever surface replaces the current one at the end of the Santa Anita meet will be another synthetic one. If that does happen, it would mean that Heatseeker, Go Between, and Champs Elysees could stay in Southern California, take advantage of that circuit's fine series of races for older males, and never worry about a transition to dirt.

But if Colonel John and El Gato Malo get to where they want to go, then they will have to deal with a surface switch from synthetic to dirt in the not too distant future. Where they want to go is, of course, the Kentucky Derby, and both did little to damage their Derby hopes finishing one-two in Saturday's Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

The Sham was not fast and resulted in a winning Beyer Figure of only 86. But that was entirely because of a very slow pace in a speedless field, and it shouldn't be of much concern. What could be a concern, however, is that Colonel John, in his first start since finishing second in the CashCall Futurity last December, was straight as a string to hold off the previously undefeated El Gato Malo. It's fair to wonder if this race took more out of him than it put into him.