07/02/2008 11:00PM

Unexpected players on Grade 1 stage

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NEW YORK - The second half of 2008 began a few days ago but the second half of the backloaded 2008 schedule of Grade 1 races doesn't begin until Aug. 16, when either the Sword Dancer or Alabama at Saratoga will be the 56th of the year's 110 Grade 1 events. We have only 36 of them in the books so far, won by 32 different horses from Ariege and Artiste Royale to Zaftig and Zenyatta, but there have already been plenty of surprises.

Big Brown, who began the year with a single maiden grass victory to his credit four months earlier, leads the nation's racehorses with three Grade 1 victories in 2008 - the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. Just two other horses have won more than a single Grade 1 so far this year: Einstein, winner of the Gulfstream Park Turf on Feb. 23 and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on May 3, and Intangaroo, who won the Santa Monica on Feb. 2 at 26-1 and the Humana Distaff on May 3 at 14-1.

All three of the year's multiple Grade 1 winners, however, are coming off a defeat in their most recent start: Einstein was second to Curlin in the Stephen Foster on June 14, Intangaroo was fourth in the A Gleam last Saturday, and, as you may have heard, Big Brown didn't fare too well in pursuit of his fourth Grade 1 on June 7 at Belmont Park. (Curlin, of course, is both a Group 1 and Grade 1 winner this year with his victories in the Dubai World Cup and the Foster.)

Big Brown has provided trainer Rick Dutrow with three of his five Grade 1's this year, with Kip Deville (Maker's Mark) and Frost Giant (Suburban) accounting for the others, not to mention Benny the Bull's Group 1 triumph in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Dutrow and IEAH Stables have the both shortest- and longest-priced Grade 1 winners of the year: Big Brown at $2.70 in the Preakness (nipping Curlin's $2.80 in the Foster) and Frost Giant at $82 in the Suburban.

Yet Dutrow ranks just second in American Grade 1 victories so far this year: Bobby Frankel has six, with as many different horses, and you could probably win a bet at any bar, even a racetrack bar, challenging someone to name them.

Give up? Double Trouble (Santa Maria), Ariege (Santa Anita Oaks), Precious Kitten (Gamely), Ventura (Just a Game), Ginger Punch (Phipps), and Mast Track (Hollywood Gold Cup). The latter four have all come since May 26.

Other than Frankel, Dutrow, Helen Pitts (Einstein), and Gary Sherlock (Intangaroo), only Steve Asmussen and Kiaran McLaughlin have won multiple Grade 1's: Asmussen with Curlin (Foster) and Student Council (Pimlico Special) and McLauglin with Little Belle (Ashland) and Divine Park (Met Mile.) What price could you have gotten on Jan. 1 that Sherlock would have more Grade 1's by July 4 than Todd Pletcher, whose lone 2008 Grade 1 winner to date is Monba (Blue Grass)?

A year ago, Pletcher had won six Grade 1 races by July 1 and he won 11 more in the second half of the year, albeit nearly all with horses who have since been retired. Since winning the Hollywood Turf Cup on Dec. 8 with Sunriver, Pletcher is 1 for 20 in Grade 1 races, with 15 of those starters finishing fourth or worse.

A similarly long price might have greeted the proposition that Tyler Baze and Alan Garcia would each have won twice as many Grade 1's by the midway point of 2008 as John Velazquez. Baze won the Kilroe Mile with Ever a Friend and the Gold Cup with Mast Track, Garcia the Met Mile on Divine Park and the Belmont with Da' Tara, while Velazquez has scored only with Zaftig in the Acorn.

The leading Grade 1 rider is Rafael Bejarano, with five such triumphs - Double Trouble, Precious Kitten, and Ginger Punch for Frankel, as well as Golden Doc A (Las Virgenes) and Heatseeker (Santa Anita Handicap). Kent Desormeaux (Big Brown) and Edgar Prado (Monba, Tale of Ekati in the Wood, and Bustin Stones in the Carter) are next with three Grade 1's, while Robby Albarado, Garrett Gomez, and Corey Nakatani are tied with Baze and Garcia at two apiece.

As for midyear Beyer Speed Figures, the highest of 2008 have been recorded in allowance or minor stakes races (Commentator - 119, Bribon - 118, Monterey Jazz - 118, and Benny the Bull - 115). The fifth best did come in a Grade 1 race, though an unlikely one to produce a gigantic figure: Zaftig's 113 in the Acorn. The next best in Grade 1 victories are the 110s earned by Curlin in the Foster and by Heatseeker in the Santa Anita Handicap, and Big Brown's 109 in the Derby.

So it's 36 down and 74 to go, with five of them from coast to coast on Saturday: the American Oaks, Triple Bend, and Vanity at Hollywood, the Prioress at Belmont, and the United Nations at Monmouth.