06/30/2008 12:00AM

These two hardly threats to Curlin


NEW YORK - With Curlin's fall racing schedule up in the air due to licensing problems involving his minority owners and a management philosophy that appears to be more comfortable experimenting with him on turf instead of synthetic surfaces, plus the uncertainty of what kind of Big Brown we will see when he returns to action, this year's Breeders' Cup Classic could be without these two standouts of the first half of 2008.

Last Saturday, we got a glimpse of what a Classic without Curlin and Big Brown might look like, and the picture wasn't appealing. Yes, Mast Track was good enough to capitalize on a perfect setup to win the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, and Frost Giant was courageous upsetting the $400,000 Suburban Handicap at Belmont. But you would have to be Timothy Leary to envision either one of these horses filling even a small fraction of the void a Breeders' Cup Classic lacking Curlin and Big Brown would create. Only Casino Drive might be able to partially compensate. Then again, who knows what Casino Drive is up to, or if he will indeed be able to return to this country from Japan in the fall.

These runnings of the Gold Cup and Suburban, Grade 1 events with rich histories, were stark reminders of how sharply quality drops off from the very top of our marquee male dirt divisions this year. The Suburban attracted a field of eight, and not one was a Grade 1 winner. Three of the nine who started in the Gold Cup were Grade 1 winners. But the favorite, Go Between, was not one of them. One of those three, Perfect Drift, got his Grade 1 win five years ago, and none of the three possesses that critical asset: genuine speed.

Speed, or the lack of it, was the story of the Gold Cup. Mast Track, who failed to hit the board in his two prior stakes attempts, has a trace of speed. He also had the rail and blinkers on, so it was no surprise to see him bound out to the lead through soft splits. How slow were the fractions? Student Council, who is only close early when the pace is really slow, sat in second. Go Between, who is almost never close early, was right behind in fourth. The pace was so slow that it helped make Mast Track look like he was running downhill through the stretch. But Mast Track deserves some credit. Many horses get loose on easy leads and don't win. He did. Still, it's questionable whether Mast Track will be as effective when he encounters a more honest pace scenario.

As for the Suburban, Frost Giant's improbable victory as the longest shot on the board at 40-1 was as much a function of other factors as his stubbornness at gut check time in deep stretch. Solar Flare looked every bit the winner a furlong out, but in allowing Frost Giant to come again late, he proved unable to stay the 1 1/4 miles at this level. Rising Moon, who figured to be far more likely to get trainer Rick Dutrow into the winner's circle than Frost Giant, was flat, as was Harlington, a poster boy for unfulfilled potential. A. P. Arrow, favored in his first start since finishing fourth in the Dubai World Cup, showed nothing, proving that he's no Curlin.

There was a divisional leader in action Saturday, but top 3-year-old filly Proud Spell was beaten in Belmont's Grade 1 Mother Goose, a victim of a bad start, a passive ride, and then a bogus disqualification from second.

Despite stumbling badly at the start, Proud Spell was in position to win the Mother Goose on the far turn, only to suffer from a tactical error late on the turn by jockey Gabriel Saez. As eventual winner Music Note moved up outside to challenge pacesetter Never Retreat, it was obvious Proud Spell would have to be released from her long hold to firmly establish her rail position, or else be at risk of getting shut off on the rail into the stretch. Saez kept Proud Spell under a long hold, and predictably they were shut off entering the stretch, essentially ending their chance to win, since by that point Music Note was gone.

Proud Spell did try hard in the stretch, but was disqualified and placed third for drifting out late and bothering Never Retreat. Yes, Proud Spell drifted out. Yes, Proud Spell brushed Never Retreat (but only after Never Retreat brushed her first). And yes, the rider of Never Retreat did steady. But when Never Retreat was steadied, Proud Spell was already 1 1/4 lengths in front of her and going away. This incident had absolutely no bearing on the outcome. Never Retreat was never going to finish ahead of Proud Spell. So this disqualification is maddening to bettors, who frequently see horses who commit real fouls left up with the explanation that the real foul had no impact on the outcome.

None of this should obscure the fact that the Mother Goose marked the emergence of Music Note as a major player in her division. Music Note, who was making her stakes debut, also stumbled badly at the start and was powerful through the stretch for her third straight runaway score.