08/17/2008 11:00PM

Stars in hiding - but let's try the super


There is no Big Brown in the $1 million Travers at Saratoga on Saturday, and there will be no Curlin in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday.

Boo on both camps as they choose to skip the two most prestigious races on the American summer racing calendar - because they want to. Because they believe their privately designed game plans work best for them. To heck with the sport they participate in - a sport dealing with declines in attendance, handle and other problems - that could use the game's two biggest stars on two of its biggest stages.

Of course, it can be said that Curlin will at least go in the $500,000 Woodward at Saratoga on Aug. 30, an important Grade 1 stakes that will lack the depth of competition in the Pacific Classic. Certainly, the challenge of running against the best in the West at Del Mar on a synthetic surface that has played fair all meet would have brought more eyeballs to the television screens, and more publicity in West Coast newspapers that have downgraded their racing coverage. It also would have been in concert with the sporting gestures owner Jess Jackson had outlined for his star performer at the start of 2008.

The excuse Big Brown's connections are giving for missing a rematch with Da' Tara in the Travers is they need to give their self-proclaimed wonder horse an "easy race," on the grass sometime in September, to theoretically prepare him for the switch to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride synthetic surface that will be installed for the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup meet.

In other words, Big Brown's connections believe he might not win the Travers right now, and/or that he has to ease his way into the BC Classic. Meanwhile, they somehow find it palatable to taunt Curlin's connections for their intention to skip the BC Classic.

At the bottom line, both horses are healthy and racing fit, so their respective decisions to skip these two marquee races to make things easier for themselves feel as if they are running political campaigns in different countries, not really eager to prove which horse really is America's best.

In the meantime, the Travers does have Da' Tara, the Nick Zito-trained surprise package that upset Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes at 38-1, while the Pacific Classic has Student Council, who won the 2007 Pacific Classic at 23-1.

Student Council subsequently added victories in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup in November 2007 and Grade 1 Pimlico Special in May 2008 to prove he is more than a synthetic specialist. Unfortunately, Da' Tara still has much to prove, having failed to hold his form when challenged for the lead by Mint Lane en route to a last-place finish in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 27, beaten 24 lengths.

While Mint Lane is not in the Travers, three of the first four finishers in the nine-furlong Jim Dandy are among 10 to 12 evenly matched rivals who are expected to compete in the historic 1 1/4-mile contest.

In order of their Jim Dandy finish, they are: Macho Again, the Jim Dandy winner who also finished second in the Preakness; Pyro, who has won three graded stakes this year and was bothered at the start of the Jim Dandy; and Tale of Ekati, winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April, who had a good prep running fourth in the Jim Dandy while not fully cranked up for the race.

There also are several quality shippers, most notably Colonel John, Harlem Rocker, and Tres Borrachos.

The Canadian-bred Harlem Rocker merely has won 4 of 5 career starts, including the Withers at Aqueduct in April and the Prince of Wales for Canadian-breds at Woodbine in June.

Tres Borrachos has raced somewhat under the radar, once a month since March. In his July outing, he prepped for the Travers by winning the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, trained by Eoin Harty, was third in the Swaps racing closer to the pace than usual. In more recent training drills, Harty accented Colonel John's late speed, which is the style he employed to win the Santa Anita Derby.

In addition, it is difficult to dismiss the Zito-trained Cool Coal Man, who was third in the Haskell, or Mambo in Seattle and You and I Forever, who finished one-two in a minor nine-furlong stakes on the Jim Dandy card while both were running about a fifth of a second faster than Macho Again in the Jim Dandy.

Good luck separating this evenly matched field, which might best be played by keying one of the midpriced contenders - such as Tale of Ekati - in the top three positions in the superfecta with any half-dozen you can pick with a hat pin. My half dozen probably will include the top two finishers in the Jim Dandy, plus Colonel John, Tres Borrachos, and Cool Coal Man.

In the Pacific Classic, Student Council will be joined by the horse he narrowly defeated last year, Awesome Gem, who also finished third to Curlin in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic and prepped superbly for the 1 1/4-mile race with a solid second in a minor turf stakes at Del Mar on July 25.

Among others likely to be part of a large field will be Hollywood Gold Cup winner Mast Track, who has blazing early speed; New York shipper Barcola, a winner of several ungraded stakes who also has front-running tendencies; plus the top three finishers in the San Diego Handicap, Well Armed, Surf Cat, and Mostacolli Mort; Brooklyn Handicap winner Delosvientos; and McCann's Mojave and Go Between, winners of the 2007 and 2008 Sunshine Millions Classic.

Of these, Awesome Gem, who apparently loves Del Mar and typically appreciates a fast, contested pace, might serve as a useful superfecta key in the same manner as fresh and fit Tale of Ekati might prove to be the right in-the-money key at fair odds in the Travers.

At the bottom line, the grandstands at Saratoga and Del Mar will be packed for both of these $1 million races on Saturday and Sunday as horseplayers and committed racing fans get involved as always. But, without Big Brown in the Midsummer Derby at Saratoga and without Horse of the Year Curlin in the Pacific Classic, the rest of the sporting world hardly will take any notice.