When the time came to anoint divisional champions for the 2011 Thoroughbred season, the assembly of Grade I races set to take place this weekend had exceptional influence in the matter.
Last year's runnings of the Arlington Million, Beverly D. and Alabama Stakes ultimately saw its victors crowned champion turf male (Cape Blanco), turf female (Stacelita) and 3-year-old filly (Royal Delta) with the Alabama producing two more Eclipse Award finalists (It's Tricky and Plum Pretty).
A slight shift in scheduling this year has put all those races — as well as three other Grade I tests — on Saturday's lineup. Given the flux in the respective divisions this year, it wouldn't be a shock if this weekend again serves as the tipping point in deciding year-end honors.
With attrition and parity touching pretty much all classes, numerous top runners can swing the pendulum in their favor starting Saturday. The Arlington Million, Grade I Secretariat, and Saratoga's Grade I Sword Dancer Invitational could all help bring clarity to the turf male ranks. The Alabama, Beverly D. and Grade I Del Mar Oaks probably will alter how pundits view the 3-year-old filly and turf female contenders.
Had Grace Hall won the Kentucky Oaks instead of running third as the favorite that day, she probably would be heading into the 11/4-mile Alabama at Saratoga looking to lock down her status as the leading sophomore female rather than prove herself as such.
Though the daughter of Empire Maker was defeated in the Oaks by Believe You Can — who was declared out of the Alabama earlier this week and sent to owner/breeder Brereton Jones' Airdrie Stud for an extended rest — Grace Hall has maintained strong regard off her victories in the Grade II Delaware Oaks on July 14 and the Grade II Gulfstream Oaks in March.
No 3-year-old filly this year has been able to string together more than one Grade I win, something Coaching Club American Oaks winner Questing and Mother Goose Stakes heroine Zo Impressive can do should they reign in the seven-horse Alabama.
"(The 3-year-old filly division is) a wide-open door right now," said Tony Dutrow, trainer of Grace Hall. "There is a half-dozen of fillies out there who have their name on the ballot right now, and with this field in the Alabama, the winner will have a bold statement toward that 3-year-old filly championship.
"We feel that with having only run four times this year that she's relatively a fresh horse in going into the Alabama in the fall."
The Dale Romans-trained Little Mike didn't figure among the division leaders until his upset score in the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, but the bay gelding would have to be mentioned as a championship contender if he can carry his speed over 10 others in a well-matched Arlington Million field.
Turbo Compressor and the beautifully bred Point of Entry also have an opportunity to separate themselves should either reach the wire first in the 11/2-mile Sword Dancer. Turbo Compressor was a front-running victor of the Grade I United Nations in July with Point of Entry taking the Grade I Man o' War for his third consecutive triumph.