08/11/2008 12:00AM

Winchester's time has come


NEW YORK - Although they are still eligible to improve dramatically even at this point in the year, 3-year-olds, in general, are not supposed to run as fast as their older counterparts. Older horses still have the edge in physical maturity, which is supposed to translate into producing faster final times. Yet on Saturday, for the fourth time in the last five years and for the third straight year, the winner of Arlington's Secretariat Stakes, a race restricted to 3-year-olds, was run faster going the same 1 1/4-mile distance on turf than the winner of the Arlington Million.

Now, before taking this as evidence that the Arlington Million is no longer attracting the grade of older horse that it did in the past, it is important to remember this: When it comes to comparisons of final time, even in races run at the same distance over the same surface, pace is a critical factor. Last year, Shamdinan's time in the Secretariat of 2:04.02 was significantly faster than Jambalaya's 2:04.76 in the Million. The same was true in 2006 when Showing Up's 2:00.09 in the Secretariat bettered The Tin Man's 2:01.35 in the Million. But in those cases, final times were misleading. In both 2007 and 2006, the early paces in the Arlington Million were so substantially slower than those in the Secretariat that they had to significantly compromise the respective final times.

Again on Saturday, there was a disparity between the early pace of the Secretariat and Arlington Million. Only this time, it was the other way around. The early fractions in the Secretariat of 25.38, 49.64, and 1:13.84 were meaningfully slower than the Arlington Million splits of 24.66, 48.57, and 1:12.40. And yet, Secretariat winner Winchester's time easily eclipsed Arlington Million winner Spirit One's time, 2:01.76 to 2:02.17.

To me, it means that Winchester was probably in the wrong race Saturday, and was easily the best horse to perform at Arlington the entire day. With blinkers and Lasix on, and going a distance at which he turned in his two previous best performances in Ireland, it was obvious that Winchester was the winner a quarter-mile from the finish. He was so dominant that even before powering away to score by more than seven lengths, he had jockey Rene Douglas turning in the saddle in search of competition.

As visually impressive as Winchester was, it's always good to get validation against the clock. And the fact that Winchester ran faster than Spirit One presented a scenario reminiscent of 2004. That year, with similar quarter- and half-mile fractions between the two races, Secretariat winner Kitten's Joy ran faster than Million first-place finisher Powerscourt, 1:59.65 to 2:00.08. What's so intriguing about this is Kitten's Joy went on that year to become only the second 3-year-old in 14 years to be voted champion turf male, and he remains the last 3-year-old to achieve that honor. It appears Winchester will get his chance to emulate Kitten's Joy and go after an Eclipse Award. After the Secretariat, his people seemed understandably eager to return to the U.S. this fall for the Breeders' Cup Turf.

As for Spirit One and his victory over favored Archipenko in the Million, much was made after the race - mainly by Archipenko's connections - that John Murtagh on third-place finisher Mount Nelson unsportingly kept Archipenko boxed in on the rail for much of the stretch run. Okay. Maybe Archipenko might have gotten up if he was able to get clear sooner. But when Archipenko was boxed in, Murtagh was still riding for second money with Mount Nelson. What was Murtagh supposed to do, just let Archipenko out and beat him? If he did, Mount Nelson's owners would not have looked kindly on it, nor, most importantly, would have the betting public.

Saturday's other big race at Arlington, the Beverly D., might have been the most important in terms of positioning for an Eclipse Award. And that is because by virtue of her decisive victory, Mauralakana wrested the top spot in the female turf division from Precious Kitten.

The Beverly D. was Mauralakana's fourth straight stakes win, her third straight graded stakes win, and her fifth stakes win from six starts this year. And while she had displayed considerable talent from the time she came to this country two years ago, now at age 5 and under the direction of trainer Christophe Clement, she is demonstrating a consistency she had not shown in the past.

As for Precious Kitten, she might have found the 1 3/16-mile distance a bit outside of her comfort zone. But as jockey Rafael Bejarano said post race, Precious Kitten still might have no equal in her division up to 1 1/8 miles. The problem for her is, unless you're a Miesque who can beat top males in the Breeders' Cup Mile, female turf championships are rarely won in races at less than nine furlongs.