The Breeders' Cup has become America's racing event, but not without a price. As its critics predicted, it has devalued other long-established stakes races -- such as the ones being run in Maryland and New York today.
The Laurel Futurity has for years been one of the country's preeminent events for 2-year-olds. Eight of its last 14 winners have gone on to win Eclipse awards. But with all the top juvenile colts pointing for the $1 million Breeders' Cup race at Aqueduct Nov. 2, the Futurity has drawn a slim field of six. Only one of the entrants, Papal Power, has even won a race of consequence.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont long has been a true championship race, one that often determines the horse of the year. But today the winners of the first two legs of New York's fall championship series, Track Barron and Chief's Crown, aren't even entered. They are waiting for Nov. 2. The Belmont race still is a good one, with Greinton facing six formidable rivals, but it is essentially an $861,000 prep for the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Laurel's stake may not look so competitive, since Papal Power's credentials dwarf those of his rivals. He won his first race in a 12-length runaway at Pimlico, took the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga by five lengths and then finished third to the brilliant Meadowlake in the Arlington-Washington Futurity in Illinois. He will be an odds-on favorite today, but he is vulnerable.
Papal Power faded badly at seven furlongs in Chicago, and today he must go 1 1/16 miles. His pedigree may not help him; his sire, Miswaki, was strictly a sprinter.
If the distance is too far for Papal Power, a former $18,500 claimer could take the winner's share of the $199,725 Futurity. Miracle Wood looked impressive winning a pair of minor stakes at Pimlico, one a sprint and the other a mile turf race, and encouraged trainer Ferris Allen to pay the $10,000 fee to make him a supplementary entry.
"It's a lot of money," Allen said, "but I don't mind having the problem of soul-searching whether to put up the $10,000. I've been envious for years of other trainers who've had that problem.
"My horse has shown he can handle just about anything. I know he hasn't beaten anything, but neither have any of the other horses, except for Papal Power. As for him, he's never been the distance, but if he can get the distance, I can't beat him."
The rest of the field consists of Go For It Matt, Canadian Winter, Royal Doulton and Southern Appeal.
In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Greinton will seek to redress his unlucky Marlboro Cup loss three weeks ago. The inside part of the Belmont racing strip was very deep and disadvantageous that day (as it still is), and jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. found himself trapped on the inside for most of the race. While Chief's Crown and Gate Dancer were making outside moves on the turn that would enable them to finish one-two, Greinton got caught in traffic as Pincay tried to extricate himself.
Today, he will have a couple of different problems. Rain has been falling in New York for the past two days, and the prospect of a sloppy track may hurt Greinton (and help some of his rivals, notably the mud-loving Creme Fraiche). "He's never been on a muddy track," said Greinton's exercise rider Janet Johnson, "so it's a mystery to us. We're hoping he can handle it."
Greinton's other big problem is likely to be Vanlandingham. The 4-year-old had to battle with the speedy Track Barron in the first two legs of the fall championship series, but with that rival on the sidelines, Vanlandingham is the only front-runner in the Gold Cup field.
All the other legitimate contenders -- Greinton, Gate Dancer, Stephan's Odyssey and Creme Fraiche -- like to come from behind, and so jockey Pat Day may be able to control the race from the start. If he does, the battle for horse-of-the-year honors will be thrown into further confusion, awaiting resolution in the Breeders' Cup.