Commentary

A look into the future

Updated: July 5, 2012, 4:14 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Sure, it promises to be a terrific race, for spectators and punters alike, a race that could produce a thrill and a windfall simultaneously, and so it's one of those races that insistently entice you out to the track even if your car's in the shop and you have to bum a ride from your sister-in-law. And the Suburban could exceed all that. It could be -- and the expectation here is that it will be -- one of the most telling races of the year.

Five months from now, we might look back on Saturday's Belmont feature as if it were the Soothsayer Handicap or the Clairvoyant Stakes. Think of this race as an old woman in modest but colorful dress, with a scarf drawn tightly over her head, peering into a crystal ball or at an ancient Ouija board, or perhaps riffling through a deck of Tarot cards. And then imagine her answering your questions, for that indeed is what the Suburban might provide, along with a glimpse at a sliver of the future: answers to some significant questions.

Could Buffum, who flashed potential as a juvenile but then squandered most of his 3-year-old season in a Dubai sojourn, possibly be this good?

Will Stay Thirsty, who had little chance on a speed-favoring autobahn of a surface in his seasonal debut, step forward in his second start of the season and display the sort of improvement generally expected from a 4-year-old, and if he does, would that place him among the country's very best older horses and enable him to join the race for Horse of the Year?

To Honor And Serve, the 9-5 favorite, has the speed and talent to jump for the early lead, but would he then run his Suburban rivals off their urbane feet, or would he become involved in some Pyrrhic pace struggle? While winning last year's Cigar and again while finishing third in the recent Metropolitan Handicap, where he lacked room inside and had to angle off the rail in the stretch, To Honor And Serve clearly established himself as one of the best milers in the country, but can he happily stalk a lively pace and then finish strongly and effectively at 1 1/8 miles?

Could Buffum, who flashed potential as a juvenile but then squandered most of his 3-year-old season in a Dubai sojourn, possibly be this good? He has won three consecutive races by a total of 20 lengths, and will he be able to stretch out and step up against such quality competition?

When he glides into his long-striding rhythm, Mucho Macho Man can be one of the most effective and capable horses around, but will he find that rhythm Saturday, or will he misplace it among eager early exertions? Will Trickmeister insist on leading, and will that insistence leave him empty in the stretch? And could there be an element of surprise in this Suburban, perhaps in the form of Hymn Book, who had a rough trip in the Pimlico Special, where he was bumped at the start and then squeezed back to last a furlong later, or perhaps in Endorsement, who tossed down some spicy fractions at Pimlico, where he held on gamely to be third?

The answers, of course, will shape the outcome Saturday at Belmont Park, but they could also begin to define this handicap division. Game On Dude, who'll be heavily favored in Saturday's Hollywood Gold Cup, is a known and respected quantity. In his first start since returning from Dubai, he won the Californian Stakes by more than seven lengths, pushing his earnings beyond $2.3 million, and with that he made an emphatic statement: Game On Dude is at least as good as he was last year, when he finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But beyond Game On Dude and Ron The Greek, who won the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster, this older division, like the Suburban, is full of questions. That's largely because the first six months of 2012 offered few lucrative opportunities for older horses: only three races on dirt with a purse of $500,000 or more.

With Kentucky Derby preference based on points rather than earnings, racetracks are suddenly free to allocate more purse money to older horses.

The 3-year-olds, on the other hand, had a dozen opportunities to race for $500,000 or more in the first six months, including seven races that dangled a million or more bucks in alluring prize money. In an arms race for Triple Crown attention, encouraged by a system that determined Kentucky Derby starters based on earnings, racetracks in recent years created a noxious discrepancy.

The million-dollar jackpot of the Florida Derby, for example, was $200,000 greater than the combined purses of the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Handicap. At the Fair Grounds, the New Orleans Handicap offered $400,000, but was overshadowed by the $1 million Louisiana Derby. And the Oaklawn Handicap's purse of $350,000 was dwarfed by the Arkansas Derby's $1 million.

A salubrious byproduct of Churchill Downs' new point system -- and, yes, it needs tweaking -- could be the end of the arms race. With Kentucky Derby preference based on points rather than earnings, racetracks are suddenly free to allocate more purse money to older horses.

That would be healthy for the sport without diminishing the value of soothsayers.