Updated on 10/08/2010 3:18PM

Slots-fueled purses depriving game of showdowns

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NEW YORK – There are nine Grade 1 and three Grade 2 races around the country Saturday, a day-long banquet of high-quality racing featuring appearances by divisional leaders Blame, Blind Luck, Lookin At Lucky, and Zenyatta. Yet those four stars are all in different races because amid the feast there are only a few scraps of what once defined top-quality racing in the fall – showdowns between the nation’s best 3-year-olds and its top older horses.

There is a case to be made that rich races restricted to 3-year-olds should end by Labor Day, along with the wearing of white shoes, but one of the few things that is expanding in American racing these days are rich opportunities for sophomores after that cutoff. At a time when top horses are making fewer starts and ducking showdowns more than ever, a glut of pricey races restricted to 3-year-olds is keeping the best horses apart instead of bringing them together.

Between last weekend and this one, there are more rich opportunities than ever for 3-year-olds to postpone meeting older horses. Last weekend, there was the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby and the $500,000 Super Derby, each drawing a thin field of six. (There also was a $154,500 Ontario Derby at Woodbine, drawing away the winners of the Queen’s Plate and Blue Grass.) This Saturday, both pro-tem leaders of the 3-year-old divisions are running as heavy favorites in races limited to 3-year-olds, Lookin At Lucky in the $500,000 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park and the filly Blind Luck in a five-horse field for the Cotillion at Philadelphia.

Imagine how much more interesting and meaningful a Saturday of racing it would be if Lookin At Lucky were taking on his elders for the first time in either the Goodwood at Hollywood or the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, or if Blind Luck were facing either Zenyatta in the Lady’s Secret or Life At Ten and Unrivaled Belle in the Beldame. Instead, they’ll be heavy favorites in Grade 2 events restricted to 3-year-olds and won’t have faced their elders all year until the Breeders’ Cup.

It’s no coincidence that all the venues offering restricted 3-year-old stakes these two weekends – Hoosier, Louisiana Downs, Parx Racing, and Woodbine – are slots-fueled tracks where the one-armed bandits are generating purse money quicker than the tracks can spend it. Racing needs a $1 million Pennsylvania Derby the last weekend in September, or a $500,000 Indiana Derby the first weekend of October, like it needs a hole in the head – but with enough slots money on the table, it’s hard to blame the connections of top runners for tilting toward easy and big paydays.

Why should Blind Luck run against Zenyatta in a $250,000 Lady’s Secret or Life At Ten in a $350,000 Beldame when she can be odds-on against Havre de Grace and three other 3-year-old fillies in a $750,000 Cotillion? Why should Lookin At Lucky be the second choice in a $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup instead of being 2-to-5 in a $1 million Pennsylvania Derby or $500,000 Indiana Derby? There are distance and fitness issues involved as well, but it’s interesting that Lookin At Lucky will have passed all three races – the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup – that made Summer Bird the 3-year-old champion a year ago.

Fortunately, even with the divisional leaders staying in 3-year-old company, there are still a few interesting cases of 3-year-olds taking on older horses Saturday. At Belmont, Paddy O’Prado’s appearance in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic gives that race much of its sparkle. Paddy O’Prado has dominated the nation’s 3-year-old turf races this summer and now is commendably being stepped up to unrestricted Grade 1 company to see if he’s Breeders’ Cup Turf material.

Fly Down is the lone 3-year-old in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and he’s the first classic-placed 3-year-old to be trying his elders on dirt this year. The Belmont and Travers runner-up looks on paper like a distant third choice to Blame and Rail Trip, but at least we’ll get some sense of where the 3-year-olds might stack up for Classic consideration.

At Hollywood, unbeaten Twirling Candy is getting a Breeders’ Cup audition as the only 3-year-old in the Goodwood. Even if he passes it, he’d have to handle dirt and more than nine furlongs for the first time if he goes in the Classic, but we’ll get some sense of whether he merits a chance by seeing how he stacks up against California’s top older males.

The Breeders’ Cup provides the definitive showcase for 3-year-olds to test their elders, but it was never intended to replace every other fall forum for those meetings. It would be a shame if the slots-fueled purses for restricted 3-year-old races in the fall accelerated an already unfortunate trend.