09/21/2008 11:00PM

Three-year-old filly honors up for grabs

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NEW YORK - While many of us grapple with the question of how much a weak 3-year-old male division has had to do with Big Brown's big season, there are no such questions at play in the 3-year-old filly division. This year's group of 3-year-old fillies might lack a solitary standout on the order of a Big Brown. But what this division does have in spades over its male counterpart is quality depth, depth that was readily apparent Saturday.

When a divisional leader is upset at short odds, as was the case Saturday when Proud Spell could do no better than finish second at 2-5 in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Philadelphia Park, it could often be taken as a sign of divisional weakness. Not in this case. While the Cotillion was certainly not Proud Spell's best performance, she had accomplished so much beforehand that her loss cost her little, if anything, in stature. And the Cotillion victory by Seattle Smooth was not your garden-variety upset. It was a solid performance from an intriguing prospect, and an illustration of the degree of talent that can be found in this category.

And speaking of talent, Indian Blessing was an overwhelming winner of Saturday's Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont Park. Indian Blessing was continuing a recent run of domination that has reminded everyone that she was the undisputed champion of this class last year when they were 2.

Getting back to the Cotillion, there has been some talk postrace about how Proud Spell's tough trip really cost her. This is unfortunate, because Proud Spell is a tough customer who doesn't seem to be the type to rely on excuses, especially when they are without merit, as was the case in this instance. Proud Spell actually sat a perfect trip to the far turn. The only reason why she had to go wide on the far turn, and got floated a bit wider into the stretch, is that she simply couldn't keep up at that point in the race to get herself into a position to save some ground. That's not a knock on Proud Spell. She was just a bit flat - completely understandable in her first start after her knock-down, drag-out battle with Music Note in the Alabama.

Besides, giving unwarranted credence to Proud Spell's trip would diminish what Seattle Smooth accomplished, and that wouldn't be fair. Seattle Smooth beat Proud Spell on the square Saturday, underscoring that she has definitely found what she needs to make the most of what she's got. Seattle Smooth was just another face when she began her career on synthetic tracks, and it wasn't until her first encounter with a fast dirt track in the Bay Meadows Oaks, which she won by six, that it seemed like she could be something more. Seattle Smooth has only had two fast-track dirt starts since, but she won the Go for Wand at Delaware Park in a romp and now the Cotillion, meaning she has not only now beaten a divisional leader, but also has yet to be seriously tested on fast dirt.

As for Proud Spell, even though she lost Saturday and apparently is finished for the year at the least, you can't demote her from the top spot in her division right now. Though Music Note has one more Grade 1 win this year than she does, and is

1 and 1 with an asterisk against her in their head-to-head meetings (Music Note beat Proud Spell in the Mother Goose when Proud Spell had a truly awful trip), Proud Spell edged Music Note fair and square in the Alabama, which this year is still the defining race in the division.

That said, Proud Spell's hold atop her division is now much more tenuous, given her uncertain future and depending on what happens in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. That is shaping up to be a bear of a race thanks to the outstanding older trio of Zenyatta, Ginger Punch, and Hystericalady. But what could make the Ladies' Classic even tougher for championship aspirant Music Note is it will be run on a synthetic surface, over which she has never raced.

And that leads us back to Indian Blessing, whose connections seemed to concede the chance at another divisional Eclipse Award when, after her distance limitations became obvious, she focused over the summer on sprint racing. But after the way Indian Blessing won the Prioress, the Test, and now the Gallant Bloom by margins ranging from 5 1/4 to seven lengths, she is not only the current heavy favorite for the female sprint title, she has also put herself in position to become an intriguing possibility for the 3-year-old filly championship.

That's not as silly as you might think. There is speculation that Indian Blessing might forgo the comparatively easier spot in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint to face males in the Sprint. That might be a very good idea. No one in the male sprint division right now is very scary, and Indian Blessing's recent Beyer Speed Figures of 110, 110, and 109 are as good if not better than anything the top male sprinters have been getting lately.

If Proud Spell is done and Music Note doesn't make a real impact in that extremely tough Ladies' Classic, and if Indian Blessing should beat males in the Sprint, it would make Indian Blessing a very viable candidate for the 3-year-old filly title despite her unconventional campaign.