A Tough Game

A TOUGH GAME                   

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of job security in training horses these days.

Horse trainers get fired all the time when they don't produce, and for the most part, the news goes unnoticed - save for a Lawyer Ron, a Quality Road or a Rachel Alexandra.

But how you explain the recent firings of the trainers of Rail Trip and Connie and Michael?

The bottom line is: don't let your boy (or girl) grow up to be a horse trainer...unless he's a Pletcher or an Asmussen, or she's a Rice.

The Rail Trip deal baffles the mind.

With Ron Ellis calling the shots, Rail Trip developed into the best older horse in Southern California, and currently a consensus third nationally - behind Quality Road and Blame.

Two weeks back, Rail Trip was 1-5 in the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park, but settled for second to Awesome Gem. A clueless  ride by top jock Bejarano  was blamed by one and all.

Two days later, the owners of Rail Trip announced to the media (that being the trades, because there is no other racing media), that the horse was being transferred to Rick Dutrow in New York.

"I was shocked,"said Ellis on the record. We can only imagine what he was saying off the record.

Meantime, Connie and Michael, a lightly-raced 3-year-old , who may be lacking Rail  Trip's accomplishments, but not his potential, was taken from world-class trainer Ken McPeek, and delivered to Dominick Schettino.

As a result, Schettino will be the program trainer Saturday when Connie and Michael goes to the gate as a major player in the $250,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

When the Oaks was run at Belmont Park at a mile and a quarter, it was a major event on the 3-year-old filly stakes calendar, but this year was switched to Saratoga to filly a hole on the first Saturday, and its distance was cut back from 10 furlongs to nine furlongs.

The Oaks field of eight includes only one Grade One winner - the favored Devil May Care - and three other graded stakes-winners, but the CCAO remains the signature event on Saturday's national stakes calendar.

In the Mother Goose, a month back at Belmont Park, Devil May Care won by a length-plus over Connie and Michael at odds-on in a field of five. Opinions vary whether C&M was gaining on Devil May Care at the of the mile-16 races, but the fact remains she ran huge for McPeek, especially In view that it was second start off a long layoff.

But, as was the case with Rail Trip, word came two days later in the trades that Connie And Michael was getting a new trainer. McPeek was out; Schettino was in.

As said, training horses - and for 24/7 at that -- can be a tough way to make a living.

I know I'm asking for trouble, but I do believe that Devil May Care - who will be 3-5 for Pletcher and Johnny V -- doesn't have to win the Oaks. She wouldn't be the first Saturday stakes lock I've seen go down in my years at Saratoga, which keeps reminding us every summer that it is the Graveyard of Favorites. And how often is that the headline in the local Sunday papers?

My choice for the Oaks, post nine on the 10-race card,  can and will be found on John Piesen Racing (1-888-612-2283 and here online). There are five fillies in the Oaks field capable of knocking off Devil May Care - Biofuel, Acting Happy,  Seeking the Title, Connie and Michael...and a Finger Lakes speedball named Lisa's Booby Trap, who will take 'em as far as she can.

If the racetrack comes up sloppy, the edge goes to Devil May Care, the only filly in the lineup with wet-track experience. Pletcher's filly broke her maiden at first asking in the slop here last year...despite getting left at the post.

Speaking of the Toddster, he has two entered in race seven, the first leg of the $500,000 guaranteed Late Pick Four - a $50,000 maiden-special for 2-year-olds at 5 ½ furlongs.

Pletcher, who has been dominating Saratoga maiden races since the turn of the century, will run Biddy, who finished third in his Monmouth debut, and gets a rider change from  DeCarlo to Gomez, and Joe Vann, who has been working long and hard over the track for his debut with Johnny V, capped  by a :47 half-mile last Saturday.

Unlike Pletcher,  his mentor, a fellow named D. Wayne Lukas, currently is on a 2-for-62 spiral with first-starters. That said, what to do with Derivative, who will have plenty of support at the windows for this race?

Lukas spent $375,000 at the Keeneland yearling sale for this son of Mr. Greeley on behalf of his biggest clients - Bob Baker and Bill Mack. The Kentucky-bred shows a solid work tab at Churchill, and Albarado gets the call.

If you feel compelled to include the favorite on your ticket, then you have to use Soldat, who was second to Sanford favorite Bail Out the Cat in his debut over a wet track at Belmont.

Race eight,  a $52,000 allowance for fillies and mares, 3 and up, at seven furlongs, might be a steel-cage match pitting Pletcher against Asmussen.

Pletcher is represented by Happy Week, a $600,000 daughter of Distorted Humor. The chestnut was scratched from a $100,000 stake last Saturday at Monmouth, and is cross-entered this weekend at the Jersey track.

Asmussen will run the favorite, a gray $375,000 Exchange Rate filly named Ash Zee, who, in her second start at Churchill, wired maidens by seven-plus lengths, earning a race-high number. Johnny V rides Happy Week; Bridgmohan has the return call on Ash Zee.

Zonga Zing has speed, but he must overcome the one-hole, the worst place to be going seven-eighths.

Remember two years back the Sheiks dominated the Spa meeting? Will they do so again? We'll get a clue in race 10, when Darley sends out a coupled entry  of 3-year-old first-time starters in the $50,000 maiden-special for 3-and-up at six panels.

They are Rumbling, a $1 million son of Unbridled's Song (how did Rick Porter let him get away?), and Do It All, a $900,000 son of Distorted Humor. Desormeaux rides Rumbling for  Albertrani; Gomez pilots Do It All for Harty.

Ae Pit, a fast-closing second in his Belmont debut, may go favored for Serpe, and a playable longshot is the Lukas-trained Paperless, a Smart Strike colt who was wiped out at the  break of his Oaklawn debut.

The bottom line: this Pick Four will not come cheaply.

On the other hand, Rachel Alexandra will be the Mad Bomber's delight in the $400,000 Lady's Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park. She's 1-9 against six fillies, only two of whom have won a stake, in both cases ungraded.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Asmussen and jockey Borel try to rate Rachel in this race...for two reasons:a) there is a world of early speed in the race, notably the  Pletcher-trained Yes She's A Lady, and Ask the Moon, trained by Ned Allard of Mom's Command fame, and b) the forecast calls for temps in the high '90s and high  humidity.

Meantime, look for jockey Bravo to have fulfilling afternoon. Jersey Joe has calls in 10 of the 12 races, and most of them are very live.

Remember when the experts were saying back in the spring that Bravo would have a rough timethis year at Monmouth  because of an expected influx of out-of-town superstars?

As it turned out, only Gomez and Johnny V of the out-of-towners answered the call for the inflated purses, and now both are gone - to Saratoga.

Thanks for tuning in. Have a great weekend, check out John Piesen Racing, and we'll see you back here Tuesday for a look back, and a look ahead.


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