06/15/2007 12:00AM

Sunriver's turf potential unlimited

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PHOENIX - There is, of course, considerable buzz around the Belmont protagonists and how they'll progress in the coming months.

A year ago, after Jazil beat Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver in the Belmont, there obviously wasn't the same sizzle, but similar questions arose. Alas, things have not gone well for that group. Jazil got hurt, did not run again in 2006 and has come back this year, well . . . not so hot. Bluegrass Cat would romp in the Grade 1 Haskell, albeit over a modest group, and then run a nonthreatening second behind Bernardini in the Grade 1 Travers. He came out of that race hurt and was retired. Sunriver went south after the Belmont, losing three straight and finishing out of the money twice.

So, when trainer Todd Pletcher saw a turf race come up in the condition book June 7 at Belmont, he probably thought, "Why not?" After all, he had nothing to lose. Sunriver, a full to champion filly Ashado, was going nowhere. Maybe the surface switch would provide a wake-up call. Or, maybe another bad showing would mean it was the end of the line. And, Sunriver had shown some signs of life the previous Sunday, when he worked on the turf at Belmont so smartly that Pletcher said, "I started looking for a race in the condition book for him."

Even Pletcher couldn't have expected what transpired. Sunriver didn't just take to the turf; he reveled in it, acting as if he'd been meant for the grass all along. Sunriver blew the race wide open with a scintillating run on the far turn and romped to a 4o1/2-length victory in a swift 1:46.94 for 1 1/8 miles on firm turf. The performance, and his 105 Beyer, opens new avenues for Pletcher.

"I might look at something like the Bowling Green," Pletcher said, referring to Belmont's Grade 2, $150,000 Bowling Green Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on July 15.

Certainly Sunriver appears to have a new lease on life, and while the turf ranks are filled with a bunch of nice horses, it's not like there is anyone around to make a new shooter quake in his shoes. English Channel, Sky Conqueror, Einstein, and Better Talk Now are surely quality runners out East, but Pletcher handles English Channel, so he can steer the two clear of one another; Sky Conqueror and Einstein are coming off ailments; and Better Talk Now's connections just said they might stick to 12-furlong races for their gallant warrior. In other words, if Sunriver really has found his true calling, then any and all East Coast turf races from 9 to 12 furlongs belong on his plate.

After Market comes of age

Speaking of turf horses, anyone who saw After Market win on June 9 in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham at 1 1/4 miles on the Hollywood turf saw a bidding star. You just don't do that to Lava Man - not in his back yard.

After Market's progression is no real shock. He's bred for it, being by world-class sire Storm Cat out of the brilliant racemare Tranquility Lake. He hinted at big-time ability last year at 3, but things went south on him when he bled severely. He moved from Bill Mott's care in the East to the John Shirreffs barn out West, and the change of venue, maturity, and time to recover from that bleeding episode appear to have done the trick. It looks like he's putting it all together now, and the timing couldn't be more perfect, with a bevy of top turf races on the calendar nationwide the next few months.

A Triple Crown to remember

I cannot remember a more satisfying Triple Crown series – save for the years we had a Triple Crown winner. The Derby provided us with validation of top juvenile form as Street Sense was dazzling. The Preakness was a stunning combination of courage and brilliance. Finally, the Belmont, with yet another dizzying stretch run, gave us a glimpse at a most special filly, and validation of a colt who has likely been asked to come farther faster than any horse in recent times.

So many other Triple Crown series have ended with a thud, either because a Triple Crown was foiled or the main players were not in the Belmont. Even without Derby winner Street Sense, this Belmont provided drama and excitement beyond measure. And good for Todd Pletcher, who won't have to listen any longer to the buffoonery regarding the lack of a Triple Crown win on his resume. Great stuff.

* Lost in the brilliance of the Belmont were a couple of noteworthy performances. First, Better Talk Now continues to thrive at age 8. The way he's going, he again figures to be a force in any major turf race he enters. On the other side of the coin was the True North. Keyed Entry, who just a couple of months ago was considered Breeders' Cup Sprint material, has gone south. He showed his customary speed but then blew the far turn, and eliminated a brave Bordonaro in the process.