05/29/2010 12:00AM

Tough acts for Mr Gruff to follow

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - On Memorial Day of 1945 -- it was a Tuesday -- a crowd of 64,670 gathered at Jamaica Racetrack on Long Island to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, three weeks earlier, and the lifting of the ban on racing, imposed in January of that year. In the bargain they got to see Hoop Jr., the subsequent winner of the delayed Kentucky Derby, take a division of the Wood Memorial with Eddie Arcaro.

That was a pretty good day.

In 1948, Memorial Day fell on a Sunday, which meant that there was racing at Hollywood Park on Monday, May 31. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and the Lakers in Minneapolis, so 72,186 sports fans had nothing better to do than go to the races to watch the Argentinean 8-year-old Shannon II beat On Trust in the $55,500 Argonaut Stakes. Shannon went on to win the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Year in, year out, Memorial Day has been a prime date on the racing calendar. School's nearly out. Summer's on the rise. Those white shoes at the back of the closet have been lonely long enough. And if there is a better way to spend the day than at the races, I don't want to know about it.

Accordingly, some very special moments have played out on Memorial Day, like in 1958 at Belmont Park, when Bold Ruler took a bite out of Gallant Man in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap. Or in 1967, at Garden State Park, where Dr. Fager won the Jersey Derby by 6 1/2 lengths and then was disqualified to last in the roughest four-horse race ever run. Manny Ycaza did the questionable steering aboard the Good Doctor.

On Monday, the bi-coastal spotlight will be on a pair of holiday miles. The Shoemaker, at two sharp turns on the grass, goes at Hollywood, while the Metropolitan Handicap unfolds around that one, vast final turn at Belmont Park.

This works out fine, since Bill Shoemaker, who died in 2003, won three memorable versions of the Met Mile during his 41 years as a jockey. In 1958, when the Met was run in mid-June, Shoe was aboard Gallant Man right back after the Carter to turn the tables on Bold Ruler. The following year, Shoemaker won the Met with 3-year-old Sword Dancer. For an encore two weeks later, they added the Belmont Stakes.

In 1977, as the 7-year-old version of Forego got rolling in his final full campaign, Shoemaker guided the big guy from last by many to first by two in a Met Mile sandwiched between Seattle Slew's Preakness and Belmont. That was a pretty good spring. It should be noted that Forego carried 133 pounds to victory that Memorial Day, which meant Shoemaker at some point had to lift about 35 pounds worth of saddle.

As a noteworthy event, the Shoemaker Mile is considerably younger than the Metropolitan's 119 years. A disposable race called the Premiere was rebranded the same year Shoemaker retired from riding, in 1990. Still, the Shoemaker languished for a few years, significant in name only, until it occurred to someone that North American horses pointing to the Breeders' Cup Mile deserved some kind of incentive to ply their specialized trade.

The Shoemaker purse exploded to $700,000 in 1996 and did not dip below $400,000 until 2005. Now it offers $250,000, which includes a $25,000 gratuity from Breeders' Cup for those horses eligible. One of them is Mr Gruff.

Sightings of Mr Gruff have been rare, though impressive. He is 6 and has raced eight times, winning five and finishing second twice. The name comes not from the cartoon crime dog (that would be McGruff), but from a romantic union of the names provided by his sire, Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up Mr. Greeley, and his dam, the Miss Grillo Stakes winner Ruff, a daughter of Clever Trick.

Two of Mr Gruff's wins for owner Gary Broad have come in the 2008 and 2009 versions of the San Simeon at Santa Anita, a 6 1/2-furlong test on the same hillside course that has hosted the first two Breeders' Cup Turf Sprints. Mr Gruff was not present for either, although the fact that he has made it into late May of any racing year is cause enough to celebrate.

"He's always had some back trouble," said Ron Ellis, Mr Gruff's trainer. "He's never had any surgeries, just a lot of rest and therapy. When I bought him as a yearling, he was a little bit close in behind, so his conformation doesn't help him much."

Hasn't hurt much, either, on those days when Mr Gruff suits up. He has never run as far as the Shoemaker's mile -- never seen a clubhouse turn in competition, for that matter -- and after showing speed coming down that hill at Santa Anita, he is sure to be on the lead Monday, closely pursued by the likes of Compari and Karelian. Contenders Blue Chagall, Gallant Son, and Global Hunter can only hope those three set the table for a closer.

"A lot will depend on how much Compari wants to push us," Ellis said, referring to the Arcadia Handicap winner who is on a roll of six straight.

"More than anything, I think it will be a matter of experience with our horse," he added. "But I don't think the middle distance will be a problem for him. His dam won that stake at a mile and an eighth. Obviously, it's not my style to stretch them out the first time in a Grade 1 race, but what're you gonna do?"