A Smash Spa Opening

by John Piesen 

From a personal standpoint, the opening four-day weekend at Saratoga was a smash.

For opening last Friday, John Piesen Racing (888 612 2283) released Le Mi Geaux as its longshot special, and the Kentucky shipper rallied to win at $20.20, an appropriate price because one needed 20-20 vision to find this winner. Even trainer Dutrow coldwatered her chances before the race.

But sometimes you get lucky. The favorites imploded in a speed duel, and jockey Lenclud, riding his first time ever at the Spa, needed the length of the stretch to get by. The filly’s clocking of 1:13 3/5 for the six furlongs over a sloppy track was the slowest winning time in that stake since the Taft Administration, and her 63 Beyer number is not exactly the stuff of legends.

But it was good enough. And that was a good thing.

On Saturday, JP Racing confidently released Biofuel at 5-1 in the Oaks. But her Canadian rider had her bottled up in traffic the whole way, and she settled for second to the odds-on Devil May Care, who really was much the best anyway.

Savvy players no doubt had that exacta cold.

JP Racing concluded the mini-weekend with Lamar Valley at $13.20 in the Monday finale, and, after a day to clear the old sinuses, will be back in action on Wednesday on a 10-race card featuring a wide-open Lake George Stakes.

Morevover, in last Friday’s column, I boldly predicted that Castellano would unseat Dominguez as the Spa riding champion.

You could argue it was a bit of a stretch since Javier has never won a New York title, and last year at the Spa was a remote fifth to RD.

Well, so far so good.

Castellano completed Day Four with a meet-high six winners, one more than Velazquez, and two more than RD.

Five of those six winners came in succession on Sunday, the first time in the Spa’s century-plus history that a jockey rode five straight winners.

That achievement sure won’t hurt Castellano’s business, although on Wednesday there are no morning-line favorites among his six calls.

Otherwise, I was floored how well deep-closers performed on the first four days. I wrote here last Friday that I have always believed the Spa surface to favor speed, and I still believe that will be the case as the meet goes on and the racetrack dries out.

I didn’t see any noticeable advantage or bias in post positions. In sprints on the dirt, horses from inside posts who broke well generally remained in contention, and hit the board a fair share of the time.

Most of the scheduled grass races were switched to the dirt so it is far too early to make any judgments on grass races.

Monday’s fifth race had to be an aberration. Rarely, if ever, do we see a horse on the Spa grass Go wire to wire. But in this case, jockey Leparoux sent Queen of the Creek right to the top. The Filly opened 10 lengths on theeight-horse field, and held on to win by a half-length.

Was this a one-shot deal or not? We’ll just to wait and see.

Finally, I’m not too sure what to make of the first-week business.

NYRA is raving about the early numbers, but the fact is that attendance slipped every day from a 23,000 opening (free gate) on a rainy Friday to 10,000 Monday under perfect weather conditions.

NYRA will have to do some fancy spinning tomorrow when it comes to comparing the numbers to last year’s opening day.


Just as Rachel Alexandra was entering the Monmouth Park to thunderous applause last Saturday for the $400,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes (Secret clearly the operative word because only 12,000 showed up to see the reigning Horse of the Year in action), a middle-aged fellow approached a clubhouse betting window.

“Monmouth race 11,” he told the slightly-shaken teller, “…I’d like $80,000 to show on the five.”

“Number five of course was Rachel Alexandra.”

Moments later, Rachel was not all that impressive beating some manes and tails, but the show player, often identified affectionately on these pages as The Mad Bomber, never had an anxious moment. He cashed at the same window, tipped the teller, and headed home. A day’s pay made.

The Bomber was surprised that Monmouth even offered show betting on Rachel. He had even made several calls to the track on the drive over to double-check.

Obviously, with show betting allowed on Rachel, the 1-10 favorite In a field of seven, the race was a magnet for show betters across the land.

In all, $1.3 million was bet to show on Rachel, the second largest amount ever wagered to show on a single entity. Tops was the $1.6 million bet to show on Medaglia d’Oro in the 2003 Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Unlike most states in the union, which have a $2.10 minimum, Arkansas at that time was one of three venues that offered $2.20. Medaglia was 1-5 in a five-horse field that day, and beat a claimer named Slider by 10 lengths.

Arkansas has since gone to $2.10.

For Monmouth, allowing show betting proved to be a wise decision. Despite the intense heat, the Shore track did get an extra four or five thousand fannies in the seats more than normal, and some fawning national print media exposure.

That is except for one brave north Jersey writer named Rowe, who called the race a “scam” and credited racing fans for “not showing up.”

As for Rachel, the race looked going in to be nothing more than a timed workout, and the $240,000 first prize fit nicely into owner Jackson’s petty cash account.

So what’s next?

Rachel’s connections have mentioned the Personal Ensign Stakes on Aug. 29 at Saratoga for her next start.

Her main opponent that day conceivably could be Devil May Care, who looked a lot better than Rachel did a half-hour earlier in winning the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

But, as a 3-year-old, Devil May Care instead will go to the Alabama on Aug. 21, where she will face pro-tem division leader Blind Luck.


Who wouldn’t want to see Zenyatta hook Rachel in the Personal Ensign?

At this point in time, Team Zenyatta is pointing their superstar mare for the Hirsch a week from Saturday at Del Mar.

However, owner Moss has expressed public and private scorn with the Del Mar race strip. And, moreover, St. Trinian, who would have been the only threat to Zenyatta in the Hirsch, will miss the race with an injury, leaving the race a laughable walkover for the Big Z.

At this point in her perfect career, it would take a giant step for mankind for Z to make the trip to Saratoga to face Rachel. But why not? What would they be afraid of?

NYRA could (and would) spike the Personal Ensign purse to seven-figures, all attendance records would be shattered, and maybe even network TV would be interested.

Can you imagine what a weekend that would be at the old Spa?

The Travers on Saturday; Zenyatta v.Rachel on Sunday.

We can only dream.

In the meantime, thanks for tuning in. Check out John Piesen Racing for my best Saratoga plays, And we’ll see you back here Friday for a look at a big racing weekend, topped by the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, and the Haskell at Monmouth.


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