07/06/2009 12:00AM

Suburban has lost much of its luster


NEW YORK - If you have even an ounce of appreciation for the history of Thoroughbred racing, then you would be hard pressed not to feel bad for what has happened to the Suburban Handicap.

The Suburban, which was run for the 123rd time Saturday at Belmont Park, boasts a roster of winners that bears a striking resemblance to a refined list of horses in the Hall of Fame. After Devil Diver became the first official champion to win the Suburban in 1945, 21 other champions followed suit, of which 14 were also Horse of the Year. Some of the greatest horses of all time, by anyone's measure, won the Suburban, including Forego, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Kelso, Bold Ruler, Nashua, and Tom Fool.

But a series of events have conspired to endanger the Suburban as we know it. Perhaps the first big blow to the Suburban's status might have been the decision by Churchill Downs to remake the Stephen Foster Handicap into a major race, which it did in one fell swoop in 1998 by boosting the Foster's purse from around $100,000 to nearly $500,000. With the Foster run some three weeks before the Suburban's traditional spot around Independence Day, that provided the Suburban with serious competition for premium horses.

This competition for horses became even more pronounced in years when the handicap division had an extreme lack of quality beyond the top one, two, or maybe three horses. Moreover, the Foster's distance of 1 1/8 miles is, in today's climate, probably an advantage. It's a better fit for the modern-day racehorse compared with the Suburban's traditional distance of 1 1/4 miles, which seems to be America's classic distance in title only.

The Suburban took another hit this year when it was downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2. Yes, recent runnings of the Suburban do not exactly ring with greatness, but the Foster has been won by a few manes and tails, too. And the downgrading of the Suburban seems unduly harsh when its recent history is compared with the Foster's.

Since 2000, three champions have won the Suburban - Lemon Drop Kid in 2000, Mineshaft in 2003, and Invasor in 2006. Yet after only two subpar runnings, the Suburban was downgraded. The Foster, on the other hand, was upgraded to a Grade 1 in 2002, three years after it was last won by a champion, Victory Gallop in 1999. And since the Foster was upgraded it has been won by the same number of champions who were also Horse of the Year as the Suburban, which is two: Saint Liam in 2005, and Curlin in 2008. Will the Foster, which doesn't come close to having the history the Suburban does, be downgraded if it suffers two off years?

It would be easier to get more up in arms over this if Saturday's renewal of the Suburban had been stronger. This is not to denigrate upset winner Dry Martini, an admirable veteran who has now won graded stakes three straight seasons, but is essentially a Grade 3 horse who can win a Grade 2 if it comes up soft enough. Dry Martini was only in the Suburban because his astute trainer, Barclay Tagg, concluded that this Suburban was no tougher a spot, and maybe a bit easier, than last week's Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows. Then again, Asiatic Boy, who was able to get second in the Foster thanks in no small part to Einstein's awful trip, was seriously outkicked in the Suburban, and was life and death to hold on to second this time.

Quick thoughts:

* With all due respect to Dry Martini, the best horse Saturday at Belmont was Kensei, who took a big step forward to win the Dwyer after racing against the bias last time out when third in the Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Not sure how far Kensei wants to go, but you might not want to hook him in a race at less than nine furlongs right now.

* Who was the last horse who did what Presious Passion does on turf? Buck's Boy, maybe? But not even Buck's Boy did what Presious Passion did winning the United Nations at Monmouth last Saturday for the second straight year, bottoming out his field by opening up a 20-length lead through an opening half in 45.20 in a 1 3/8-mile race, and still winning clear. He's amazing.

* And speaking of Monmouth, can we now, after his strong win Saturday in the Salvator Mile, classify Coal Play as a horse for course? He's a stakes force there. Not so much elsewhere.

* Totally understand the decision to scratch Fabulous Strike out of Sunday's Tom Fool at Belmont. He was going to be hooked hard early while going a seven-furlong distance that is about three jumps farther than his optimum trip. But at six furlongs, right now, Fabulous Strike doesn't have to defer to any horse or any circumstance.

* While on the Tom Fool, I know he got an absolute dream trip, again, but Munnings was still very impressive, again, making the Tom Fool his second straight Grade 2 stakes score. Munnings heads a trio of very intriguing 3-year-old sprinters, the others being Zensational and Custom for Carlos, both of whom also won on Sunday. Like Munnings, Zensational beat older opponents in the Grade 1 Triple Bend at Hollywood Park, while Custom for Carlos ran a hole in the wind in the Jersey Shore at Monmouth.

* Guess Julien Leparoux knew what he was doing. He rode Informed Decision on Saturday in the $150,000 Chicago Handicap at Arlington instead of It's a Bird, on whom Leparoux won more than $1.1 million in purses already this year, in the $400,000 Suburban. Informed Decision was an easy winner. It's a Bird finished a weary seventh.