A Seat in the Bleachers: Gritty filly ran like a champion

At Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, fans were treated to some real racing that reminds you why it's

The focus of the horse racing world this week was on the battle of words exchanged in the media between the Curlin and Big Brown camps.

It was actually kind of fun to watch, a bunch of smart, rich guys warming to a fight that probably won’t ever happen. My six-digit charitable donation can beat up your five-digit charitable donation. Let’s git it oooonnn!

And if the big matchup between the 2007 Horse of the Year and the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner doesn’t happen this year, it surely will not happen next year, what with monstrous piles of money to be made in the breeding shed.

This battle happened in newsprint and cyberspace, though. No animals were raced in the making of this movie.

Meanwhile, at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, fans were treated to some real racing that reminds you why it’s such a great sport.

Better Talk Now, just rambunctious enough in the paddock to make you want to see the 9-year-old’s birth certificate and gelding papers, ran all day, but couldn’t overcome a wide trip to catch Grand Couturier in the Grade I Sword Dancer.

That was a warmup for the main event.

New York Racing Association oddsmaker Eric Donovan suggested to me that the Alabama was the race of the year, anywhere, so far, and I have to agree with him.

I flashed back to last year’s Belmont Stakes, when the filly Rags to Riches and Curlin jousted the length of the stretch.

This time, it was Proud Spell and Music Note who were inseparable, eyeball-to-eyeball, for the eighth-of-a-mile expanse of dirt that sits like a massive canvas in front of the Saratoga grandstand.

For what had to be less than a second, Music Note got her nose slightly in front of Proud Spell, then Proud Spell dug in and regained the lead, barely. It stayed like that all the way to the wire, with Proud Spell winning by a head as track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice roared over the loudspeakers: “Oh, what a game filly! Proud Spell would not ... be ... denied!”

The performance of both horses was thrilling and gut-wrenching, but even moreso considering what was at stake. When Music Note’s connections chose not to run against the colts in next Saturday’s Travers, the Alabama became the pivot point for the 3-year-old filly championship.

These fillies probably won’t race more than twice more this year, and might not race against each other again, so when the votes come in, Saturday’s result will carry heavy weight.

Of course, It would be naive to believe that anything in this sport could ever be as pure and perfect as you wish it to be.

Sweet Vendetta was eased up at the finish and apparently suffered from respiratory bleeding. As she was walked back up the stretch to her barn on the other side of Union Avenue, the horse ambulance, hauntingly, drove in front of the crowd in the other direction and continued around the clubhouse turn and disappeared, while trainer Larry Jones and his big white cowboy hat was surrounded by microphones in the winnerÕs enclosure.

Jones trains Proud Spell, and also trained Eight Belles, the filly who broke down after finishing second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.

That put him at the center of renewed efforts to have horse racing investigated, banned, you name it.

This decent and honest Kentuckian, one of the rare few who actually gets on the backs of his horses in the morning, stuck it out, and now, once again, he has the division-leading 3-year-old filly in the country. Kick it around all you like, but it’s written in the dirt.

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