06/29/2009 11:00PM

Weekend made for betting

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In my youth, the Fourth of July was more than a celebration of American independence with a backyard barbecue. It was a baseball doubleheader holiday. There were two games for the price of one at virtually every ballpark - from the lowest minor league to the major league cities hosting the eight games. Yes, there were only 16 major league baseball teams in the 1950s when I probably played in a doubleheader in Bayonne, N.J., as part of an amateur summer league.

While this accent on baseball for this important national holiday ended long ago, horse racing remained the number one spectator sport in America all the way through the early 1980s, with greater ontrack attendance than baseball, or college and pro football. This seems hard to believe for most racing fans of the 21st century, who have seen attendance declines at all but a few premier tracks almost every year in this decade.

It also is an indictment of contemporary racing officials who have failed to seize the abdication of baseball on the Fourth of July as a gilt-edged opportunity to develop national promotions that could spike attendance and overall interest.

Consider the options presented by a list of prestigious stakes scheduled for July 4 at just four prominent racetracks. Consider how much money is being given away; how other tracks in the Midwest and South also will offer several rich stakes; and that the intensity of classy racing will extend through Sunday, July 5. Yet, nothing exists to link any of these races on either day to attract the millions of people who still show an interest in the greatest gambling game man has ever invented.

Wouldn't it make sense for tracks and various horsemen's groups to petition each state for a weekend of reduced takeouts to attract more players from coast to coast? Why not offer a special intersectional pick six, with cooperative television coverage by TVG and HRTV? Or, a national low-cost or free handicapping contest for seats in the NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship?

Lacking any of that and with no more baseball doubleheaders to dominate July 4, perhaps regular players will find some of these races worth playing on their own merits. There will be time enough to catch up with the barbecue after the last stakes is run.

Saturday, July 4

Hollywood Park

The Grade 2, $150,000 American Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, is expected to attract last year's top two finishers, Whatsthescript and Storm Military, along with speedy Monterey Jazz, smooth-working Ferneley, Neil Drysdale's hard-hitting Artiste Royal and Giant Gem, plus Buenos Dias, Pick Six, and El Merito in a race that includes some long-range Breeders' Cup prospects.

Belmont Park

The Grade 2, $400,000 Suburban Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/4 miles, will have as one of the favorites the $3 million earner Asiatic Boy, top-weighted at 122 pounds by virtue of his second to two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the 2008 Dubai World Cup and a more recent second to Macho Again in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs last month.

The Grade 2, $200,000 Dwyer, for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, likely will include two promising colts trained by Steve Asmussen. They are the improving Sunday Sunrise and Kensei, third against once-beaten Hull in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs and second to Munnings in the Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard. Just Ben, a runaway winner of an allowance race over the track, also would be a formidable threat if entered by Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.

The Grade 1, $300,000 Prioress, for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, should be a good test for the Asmussen-trained Heart Ashley, who won her last three using late speed or tactical early speed. Unbeaten Cat Moves and front-running Acorn winner Gabby's Golden Gal are obvious threats, while speedy Light Green and Selva could boost the pace sufficiently to give D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bet Fair a chance to upset as she turns back in distance from three straight Grade 1 route stakes. Kiaran McLaughlin's Dream Play is another who could benefit from a speed duel.

Monmouth Park

The Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations Stakes, for 3-year-olds and up at 1 3/8 miles on the turf, always attracts a strong field for a race that practically introduced American racing fans to turf racing in the early 1950s. This year, we probably will see front-running Presious Passion attempt a repeat U.N. score against venerable 10-year-old Better Talk Now, a winner of more than $4 million; the Billy Mott-trained Court Vision; Banrock, who finished second on June 13 to Presious Passion in a nine-furlong stakes over the course; Canadian-based stretch-runner Spice Route; Lauro, a winner of a Grade 2 stakes at Woodbine last fall; Godolphin Stable's Colony, winner of a listed stakes at Ascot; and possibly Shug McGaughey's Grade 1 winner Dancing Forever, who was third in a prep race for this at Belmont Park on May 31.

The Grade 3, $250,000 Salvator Mile, for 3-year-olds and up, also is on this card and is a wide-open handicapping test. Among the more intriguing probables are Smooth Air, who was a solid second in the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont on May 25, and Chirac, a two-time winner over the track this year.

Churchill Downs

The Grade 2, $150,000 Firecracker Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up at one mile on the turf, should attract the speedy and game Thorn Song in a field that may not be settled until course conditions are determined on race day.

Sunday, July 5

There will be more high-profile stakes on this day. Among the best will be the Grade 1, $700,000 American Oaks, for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/4 miles on the Hollywood Park turf course, plus two intriguing sprints, one at Belmont and one on the American Oaks card at Hollywood.

This year's American Oaks contenders include Sands Point Stakes winner Gozzip Girl; Senorita Stakes winner Mrs Kipling; British invader Rare Ransom; Puttanesca from New Zealand; the Michael Matz-trained Magical Affair; and several other California-based rivals with solid stakes experience.

Belmont will offer the Grade 2, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up at seven furlongs, with hard-hitting Fabulous Strike seeking to stretch out a furlong beyond his comfort level while meeting New York-bred Driven by Success, as well as accomplished sprinters Two Step Salsa, Riley Tucker and Sixthirteen. Munnings will face older horses here in what could be the best sprint race in the East so far this year.

On the Cushion Track at Hollywood, there is likely to be a match of at least one 3-year-old against older sprinters in the Grade 1, $300,000 Triple Bend Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at seven furlongs. Bob Baffert says he is planning to run the 3-year-old speedster Zensational against 2006 Triple Bend winner, Siren Lure; Ack Ack winner Noble Court; as well as Paul's Hope, Rebellion and Street Magician. The latter, trained by Eastern-based Michael Trombetta, comes to Hollywood with five wins in nine starts, including a runaway score on the Tapeta synthetic track at Presque Isle.

Again, virtually all of the July 4-5 stakes have more than local appeal, and they could help attract more fans if a unified effort could be made next year to promote and link them on a national basis.