An excellent field of 3-year-olds will gather at Colonial Downs this afternoon for the seventh running of the $500,000 Virginia Derby, but none is named Smarty Jones, none ran in any of the Triple Crown races, and only the heartiest racing fans likely could identify the horses.
Why? Because the Virginia Derby is run on grass, and American racing is focused on dirt.
"We're really counter to the rest of the racing world," said Kentucky-based trainer Ken McPeek, who will send out 3-1 third choice Prince Arch in the 11/4-mile Virginia Derby.
While racetracks in this country with turf courses card two or three grass races a day, European and Australian racing is conducted almost exclusively over the green. Colonial Downs, in New Kent County, with its lush 11/8-mile Secretariat outer turf course, and an inner turf course just under a mile, is an exception. All 10 races on the Virginia Derby card -- including the Grade III $200,000 All Along Breeders' Cup and the inaugural $200,000 Virginia Oaks for 3-year-old fillies -- will be run on the grass.
While favorite Kitten's Joy, winner of three stakes races and five of eight lifetime starts, Prince Arch and New York-based turf ace Artie Schiller might not be in the class of Smarty Jones, they are among the best 3-year-olds in the country.
That they are so overshadowed by the dirt runners is "only a sign of how much appeal is in the Triple Crown," said trainer Graham Motion, who will send out 10-1 shot Commendation, who finished fourth behind popular dirt competitor The Cliff's Edge in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November before making a permanent move to turf racing. "The whole media thing around the Triple Crown is so different. The winner of [the Virginia Derby] has to be rated as the top 3-year-old turf horse in the country."
The Canadian Triple Crown features races run on both dirt and turf, making it arguably a truer test of a horse's ability than the U.S. version -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. That series, however, is restricted to runners bred in Canada, while the Triple Crown is open to all comers.
Tim Smith, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said he likes the idea of developing a Triple Crown for turf horses, although a national series for 3-year-old fillies is further along in planning and more likely to get marketing muscle and corporate sponsorship.
"One thing we know is if they're relatively simple concepts -- like three races -- horses can develop tremendous followings in a short period of time, like completely obscure Olympic athletes who suddenly become household names," Smith said. "Whether [a Triple Crown series] for 3-year-olds just on the turf is implementable, I'm not sure."
Reflecting the relatively low stature of turf racing in the country, only two grass races for 3-year-olds -- the Hollywood Derby and Secretariat Stakes -- carry Grade I status, the highest level of racing offered. The Virginia Derby received a Grade III rating for the first time this year.
One of the best ways to develop great races and visibility is to make them worth a lot of money, Motion said. The Virginia Derby is "a great race -- the money is obviously a huge factor," he said. "To run 3-year-olds for [$500,000] on the grass attracts a lot of attention. You'd come a long way for that kind of money."
Racing Notes: Motion will send out Film Maker, a 4-year-old filly, as favorite in the All Along, a 11/8-mile race for fillies and mares. Based at Fair Hill, Md., Film Maker, to be ridden by leading jockey Edgar Prado, won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Cup last fall at Keeneland.
Top challengers appear to be Sand Springs, a multiple graded stakes winner, and Brazilian import High Court. . . .
Smarty Jones will make his return to the races in front of a hometown crowd at Philadelphia Park on Sept. 6 for the Pennsylvania Derby. Trainer John Servis made it official Friday: The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will skip next month's Haskell Invitational in favor of his hometown track.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.