07/23/2008 11:00PM

Super Saturday at Saratoga


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On the only mildly confident assumption that Saratoga Race Track has not entirely washed away into Lake George by the time you read this, the best card of racing in New York since Belmont Stakes Day will be run here Saturday.

What is being marketed as "Breeders' Cup Challenge Day," better and more properly known as Whitney Day, includes four consecutive Grade 1 or 2 stakes, and the entries include three former champions: Wait a While, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2006, in the Grade 1 Diana; Thor's Echo, that season's champion sprinter, in the Grade 2 Alfred Vanderbilt Handicap; and Ginger Punch, the reigning champion older filly of 2007, in the Grade 1 Go for Wand.

Only the Whitney Handicap itself lacks a previous Eclipse winner, though it's a dandy betting race with a field of 11, including highweights Commentator, Student Council, Grasshopper, and Notional.

Last year's version of this card proved to be an accurate preview of titlists. In the space of 31 minutes, Ginger Punch won the Go for Wand and Lawyer Ron won the Whitney, and six months later they were honored as the nation's top older male and female. A third Eclipse winner won earlier that day: The second race at Saratoga last July 28 went to a 6-1 first-time starter named War Pass, who won his debut by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:10.26 and went on to win the Champagne, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and the 2-year-old championship. This Saturday's second is also a six-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds, and is loaded with fancy and expensive firsters from trainers including D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher, and Nick Zito.

All four of Saturday's stakes races are Win and You're In events for the Breeders' Cup, not that the winners of the Diana, Vanderbilt, Go for Wand, or Whitney have ever been in danger of being excluded from a Breeders' Cup race. Ginger Punch has probably already clinched a berth to defend her Breeders' Cup title, with victories in the Grade 2 Louisville and Grade 1 Phipps in her last two starts. A bigger question is whether her connections will choose to try to defend that title, given that this year's Distaff - renamed the Ladies' Classic, an unpopular decision there is still time to retract - will be run on a new synthetic racing surface at Santa Anita.

The rematch in that division that everyone wants to see is Ginger Punch vs. Hystericalady, who finished a nose apart in that order to determine last year's Distaff and older-filly title. Hystericalady, however, has shown a preference for dirt over synthetic surfaces, leaving her participation at Santa Anita in doubt. Nor is Bobby Frankel, Ginger Punch's trainer, particularly eager to have her make her final career start on a kind of footing she has never tried. She might anyway, given that she's owned by Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment also owns Santa Anita.

Superfecta modification not enough

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board took one small step toward allowing New York to join the 21st century world of wagering this week when it granted Saratoga the right to offer superfecta wagering on any "qualifying" race instead of the previous limit of three per day. Now it's time to get rid of those qualifications, ancient and indefensible restrictions which could be said to have outlived their usefulness had there ever been anything useful about them.

First is the requirement that a race must have eight starters for the track to offer a superfecta. This was the face-saving fruit of a 30-year-old harness race-fixing investigation, and it made no sense then or now. The second is a prohibition on coupled entries in superfecta races, instituted because some ill-informed and long-departed board functionary thought that horseplayers would be confused if both number 1 and 1A finished in the top four in a race. There is not a horseplayer alive who does not understand that you go to the fifth-place finisher to complete the winning super combo in such cases, just as you go to the fourth-place finisher to complete a trifecta combination when two parts of an entry finish in the top three.

These two restrictions are a case of a regulatory body pretending it is protecting the public when in fact it is protecting nothing while depriving the public of what it wants.