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COMMENTARY

New Stars Are Changing National Racing Picture

September 08, 1996|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

For most of 1996, Cigar has dominated American racing. Not only did his 16-race winning streak command widespread attention until it was snapped at Del Mar last month, but there wasn't another thoroughbred in the country with an iota of star quality. The horses who had contested the Triple Crown series seemed to be a mediocre bunch.

Over the weekend, however, the national racing picture changed markedly. Lightly raced Will's Way beat Louis Quatorze in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga and forced a re-evaluation of the 3-year-old crop. Many of these horses are late bloomers, and they are suddenly looking like a formidable group. At Monmouth Park, a 4-year-old named Smart Strike won the Iselin Handicap over a high-class field and verified that he is an exceptional talent. Cigar, watch out!

It is an annual ritual for racing fans to deplore the quality of the equine younger generation, and this year the criticism seemed well-founded. The horses who won the Triple Crown races all did so with the aid of perfect trips and figured to be trounced when they moved into tougher competition. This seemed especially true of Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, who was characterized by The Washington Post as a "faint-hearted bum."

Three weeks ago, Louis Quatorze and Will's Way prepped for the Travers in the Jim Dandy Stakes, and they put on a performance that stunned just about everybody who saw it. After dueling head-and-head around the track, they finished 15 lengths ahead of a good field and ran so fast that most handicappers could hardly believe the time. Jerry Brown, who produces the Thoro-Graph speed figures, declared that Louis Quatorze's narrow victory was the fastest performance by a 3-year-old since Risen Star won the Belmont Stakes in 1988.

Bettors at Saratoga Saturday must have thought this race was flukish, because they made Skip Away the solid Travers favorite. But when Will's Way and Louis Quatorze finished one--two-albeit in less spectacular time than their prior effort--they confirmed that their improved form is genuine. Will's Way, who missed the Triple Crown series and was making only the sixth start of his career, would seem to have plenty of room to improve. The son of Easy Goer could very well go on to establish himself as the champion his generation.

Yet the most exciting performance of the weekend was the one by Smart Strike, who scored his sixth straight victory and lived up to the great expectations that have always accompanied him. He was born to be great: the son of Mr. Prospector and a champion mare is as well bred as any horse in North America.

His owner Ernie Samuels, said, "When this horse first came to the track all of our help said he was special--that he had another gear that horses normally don't have." Neutral observers shared this opinion.

Clocker Jim Bannon said, "Even when he's just galloping, you can see the length of his stride, the power of his stride, the mechanics, and you know this is an exceptional horse."

As a 3-year-old last season Smart Strike was expected to win Canada's big race, the Queen's Plate, when a tendon injury sidelined him for more than a year. When he returned to competition this summer he looked better than ever, and on Sunday he finally got the chance to prove himself, running against the champion filly Serena's Song and the high-class colt Eltish.

Smart Strike controlled his high speed, sat behind Serena's Song and then surged to a 2 1/4 length over Eltish. He ran only two-fifths of a second slower than Monmouth's track record for 1/16 miles.

The development of Smart Strike, Will's Way and Louis Quatorze should hearten everybody who loves the sport. Thoroughbred racing hasn't had many stars in the 1990s, and when it finally got one in Cigar, he came along at a time when there was nobody to give him a formidable challenge.

In the coming weeks, events such as the Woodward Stakes, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Meadowlands Cup should produce some interesting confrontations. And then, on Oct. 26 at Woodbine--Smart Strike's home track--all of the continent's best horses will square off in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Cigar's last race could be the dramatic high point of his career.

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