Farma Way can take the lead in the American Championship Racing Series by winning the $500,000 Iselin Handicap at Monmouth, the ninth leg of the 10-race, $8.25 million tour, set for tomorrow.
Festin, whose 40 points head the list for the $750,000 top prize among $1.5 million in bonus money, won't compete in the Iselin. Trainer Ron McAnally is waiting for the final race, the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 15, to try to clinch the series.
In the Iselin, it is expected that Farma Way, who has 33 points and the only realistic chance to catch Festin, will compete against Marquetry, who took the New England Classic at Rockingham Park, and Black Tie Affair, a new face in the ACRS.
Both Festin and Farma Way have competed in six ACRS races. No other horse has run more than four times. Points are awarded on a 10-7-5-3-1 basis.
Festin, a closer, runs his off-the-pace race at his own speed every time, while Farma Way, pushed along by trainer D. Wayne Lukas, is a front-runner whose last three races -- a third in the Nassau County Handicap at Belmont June 8, a second to Marquetry in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 29 and a fifth in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 10 -- have been lung-bursting affairs.
"I hope to go in the last two races," said Lukas. "We'll keep trying to win important events like the Iselin and the Woodward. The series could go down to the last race for all the marbles. Farma Way is capable of coming back after the Iselin, but we'll probably catch some fresh ones in the Woodward."
Farma Way is in for another brutal confrontation tomorrow. Marquetry is equally talented, and Black Tie Affair, a converted sprinter who may be the quickest horse in the country, will try to last the 1 1/8 -mile distance.
Farma Way still has to prove he's better than Marquetry, who beat him in the Gold Cup, albeit with the aid of a 12-pound weight advantage.
"Everything is perfect," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Marquetry and whose stable has been on a tear of late. "Since winning the New England Classic, the horse has been doing great. Now I believe that this horse can be as good as any.
"I'm glad that Black Tie Affair will run. Then I don't have to worry about someone stealing an easy lead. Our strategy will be similar to the Rockingham race."
Black Tie Affair has recently escaped the sprinting ranks to become a major player on the national scene. He's won three stakes in a row, most recently the Cornhusker Handicap Aug. 11 at Ak-Sar-Ben. In that race, he covered the Iselin distance in 1 minute, 48 3/5 seconds, winning by more than 3 lengths.
"He won his last three races so easily," said trainer Ernie Poulos. "He went to the lead, and that was the end. He was never extended in any of these starts. Now he's the best that he's ever been. And that is why the time is right to try the big horses in the Iselin.
"I think that he'll fit at Monmouth because he's a free-running horse who likes to go to the front. I expect Marquetry to stay off our pace. Farma Way? I'm not too much worried about him. I'm going there to try to beat them all."
The irony of this series is that, whether it be Festin or Farma Way, the ACRS champion does not have much of a chance to be Handicap Horse of the Year, let alone Horse of the Year. In Excess, who won the Suburban at Belmont and the Whitney at Saratoga, is the leading candidate for both honors as he awaits the Woodward. In Excess has only run once in the ACRS, finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap March 9.