Diamonds in the Rough - by Lenny Shulman

September 28 was widely hailed as the greatest day of action in Major League Baseball history, quite amazing since it featured only regular season games as opposed to the playoffs or World Series. Yet, with four teams attempting to squeeze into two post-season berths, the sudden reversals of fortunes and late-inning heroics that lifted Tampa Bay and St. Louis while crushing Boston and Atlanta captured the attention of a nation that had long forsaken the pastoral “national pastime” for the violent collisions of the National Football League. It is not overstating the case to say that careers were made (hello Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria) and lives changed (goodbye Boston’s manager Terry Francona) in the span of a few fateful minutes.

Perhaps on a smaller scale but in its own emphatic way, Thoroughbred racing enjoyed a thrilling climax to its “regular season” (excepting the three weeks of Keeneland yet to come) the weekend of Oct. 1-2 in the final tune-ups for the Nov. 4-5 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. We witnessed awe-inspiring performances, dramatic comebacks, and tissue-grabbing human-interest stories as top-shelf racing worked its magic on us from the scenic turf of Longchamp to the muddy majesty of Belmont and the sun-splashed palms of Santa Anita. If this is just the regular season, the championship round a month hence will be tough to wait for.

The idea of male dominance in the handicap division has taken a series of body blows over the past two seasons as Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta worked their ways to the head of the class, defeating the boys and copping the last two Horse of the Year trophies. To prove this could be more of a trend than a fluke, Havre de Grace, merely a top-notch 3-year-old filly a year ago, took another step toward proving she has evolved into a full-out monster this season, winning the grade I Beldame Stakes Oct. 1 as though it were an exhibition at a county fair. She defeated the boys in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) last out with equal dispatch—much easier than Rachel two years ago—and although owner Rick Porter was playing it coy post-race, it will be a major upset if she is not turned loose against males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) considering her current form.

Flat Out, impressive in taking the same day’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), is a horse that is impossible not to like. Besieged by injuries early in his career, he has patiently waited for his moment and has now seized it. His crooked blaze reminiscent of his grandsire, A.P. Indy, who enjoyed some glory over the Belmont strip, Flat Out obviously has the heart of a warrior. And he has another intangible: His 70-year-old trainer “Scooter” Dickey, who hails from a dot on the map called Anthony, Kan., was enjoying his first grade I victory after 48 years of saddling horses. Think he’ll be popular around Louisville in the coming weeks?

And what would sports be without the classic comeback story? Joining the battle in the Classic will be Uncle Mo, the champion 2-year-old of last year who, instead of being tested in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) five months ago, was in a clinic being tested for a rare liver disease. Uncle Mo flashed his brilliance once again in the Kelso Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont and will have yet another shot at the golden ring under the Twin Spires.

Need a dose of Bob Baffert in the Classic? No problem. He’s got Goodwood Stakes (gr. I) best Game On Dude and third-place Coil to add some West Coast seasoning to the burgoo.

Although 2011 for months on end was beset by mediocre racing, the Classic is all of a sudden shaping up as one of the best in years.
And the other divisions are in good shape as well. European-bred Stacelita, who has battled stalwarts Midday and Sea The Stars across the water, is obviously all class as she showed once again in the Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes (gr. IT) as she prepares for the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). Creative Cause is tearing up the 2-year-old scene in California, and juvenile filly Weemissfrankie is only three-for-three with two grade I victories and a track record so far.

And then there is the queen of the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT), three-time winner Goldikova, who showed she was merely mortal in her final race in her native France, losing a head decision to Dream Ahead in the Oct. 2 Qatar Prix de la Foret (Fr-I), the penultimate battle of her phenomenal career. Has she lost a step? Would it matter if she has? Can she make it four in a row?

Wouldn’t it lift the soul if baseball and Thoroughbred racing can both mount spectacular comebacks?

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