Front-running has its privileges

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Wise Dan crowned himself Horse of the Year, which, of course, is how it should be done -- with a victory on the racetrack. Beyond that, though, some confusion remains, even though the Breeders' Cup once again proved itself to be horse racing's championship event.

Groupie Doll set the championship tone Saturday at Santa Anita, giving rivals the old reel-and-toss, as only she can, in one overwhelming move. She reeled them in, surging and sweeping four-wide at the leaders, and then tossed them aside, grabbing the lead and spurting clear on her way to an easy 4½-length victory in the $1 million Filly And Mare Sprint. It was her fifth consecutive dominant victory. Most of all, it was a championship performance by an unimpeachable champion in an event that's billed, according to the banner hanging at the main entrance to the racetrack, as the World Thoroughbred Championships.

And these Breeders' Cup races indeed decided many championships. With victories here, Royal Delta confirmed herself to be the champion older mare, and Shanghai Bobby didn't wait for the voters but named himself the champion 2-year-old colt, and Trinniberg almost certainly became the champion sprinter. But Groupie Doll, while setting the tone, also provided a striking contrast. She rallied from sixth and raced four-wide on a surface that resolutely favored speed.

Speedsters had an advantage for this Breeders' Cup. It was as if they woke up finding themselves on second base and thought they had hit a double. On Friday, Royal Delta led throughout to win the Ladies' Classic, and Beholder led throughout to win the Juvenile Fillies.

On Saturday, Shanghai Bobby closely stalked the leader, took control before completing three-quarters and won the Juvenile by a head. Trinniberg disputed the pace from the start, assumed the lead at the top of the stretch and won the Sprint by three-quarters of a length over The Lumber Guy.

And so it went: speed, speed, speed. Late runners not named Groupie Doll had about as much chance as a marshmallow at a Boy Scout campout. From the very start of the Dirt Mile, Tapizar argued for the lead. After gaining the advantage, he never even felt the threat of the late-charging Rail Trip, who finished more than two lengths back.

The culmination of this front-running speedfest came in the $5 million Classic, the richest race in North America, where Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man danced a pas de deux around the track, running one-two for the entire 1¼ miles. In the stretch, Mucho Macho Man angled out to challenge, but he couldn't get by the leader, just as nobody could get by Royal Delta or Beholder or Trinniberg or Tapizar or Shanghai Bobby in Santa Anita's leader-loving stretch. Meanwhile, on a speed-biased surface that unabashedly bestowed riches and glory on the early leaders, the 6-5 Classic favorite, Game On Dude, who could have nailed down Horse of the Year with a victory, was rated into oblivion and finished seventh.

But at least the Horse of the Year didn't stake a claim to the golden Eclipse Award with the aid of a speed bias. Wise Dan stalked the pace Saturday and then drew clear in the stretch to win the Mile, setting a record on the Santa Anita turf with a clocking of 1:31.78. Animal Kingdom rallied strongly to be second, and Obviously, the early leader, held on for third. Excelebration, who came here rated among the best in Europe, finished fourth.

It was the fifth victory of the year for Wise Dan. Unbeaten in four stakes on turf, he also won the Ben Ali Stakes on Keeneland's synthetic surface and finished second, despite a troubled trip, in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.

But while the Breeders' Cup settled many championship questions, it probably tossed some Eclipse voters into a vat of boiling cognitive dissonance. Who's the turf champion? Little Mike, who won the Breeders' Cup Turf? Or Point Of Entry, who ran second Saturday but who had beaten Little Mike in their prior meeting and had won four consecutive stakes? Or is Wise Dan the turf champion? And who's the champion older horse? Classic winner Fort Larned or Wise Dan? And could Wise Dan be Horse of the Year without being a divisional champion? And who's the champion 2-year-old filly, Beholder or Executiveprivilege?

Championship questions are so much easier when Groupie Doll is involved.