Sword Dancer Saturday

SWORD DANCER SATURDAY AT THE SPA
by John Piesen

It seems that nobody got the memo.

As far back as I can remember, the lead was the best place to be in dirt races at Saratoga. Watching hundreds (thousands?) of races over the years from the roof above the Spa press box, I would see a parade of horses going wire to wire – especially at two-turns.

But not this year.

Since day one, closers are winning in droves. The trend continues the first two days of this week, when there have been only two front-end winners – two on Wednesday, none on Thursday.

This handicapper learned the hard way in Thursday’s seven-furlong fifth race when best bet Harmonizer, at 6-1, was nailed on the wire by the last-to-first Heritage Hall at 9-1.

At least the 17,000 on-sight saw it coming, unlike the millions who watched the race on TV, who looked home free with a close-up of Harmonizer on the lead, only to see Heritage Hall blow by In the final jump.

Will this trend continue the second half of the meeting?

I would have to say yes…unless something dramatic happens with the weather and/or with the maintenance crew.

Then there is Ramon Dominguez.

Ramon came to Saratoga the proud winner of the last nine NYRA meets, an all-time record. But, as we mentioned last week, Dominguez, after a slow start, needed to pull a Houdini act to win Saratoga.

Well, hello Houdini!

Ramon posted back-to-back doubles on Wednesday and Thursday to gain ground on leaders Velazquez and Castellano, and has calls in all nine races on Friday, and in 10 of the 11 races on Saturday, needless to say most of them live.

I wouldn’t be surprised if RD is back on top by Monday morning.

One of Ramon’s live calls is the lightly-raced Grassyon Saturday in the 36th running of the Sword Dancer Invitational, a Grade One for 3-and-up at a mile and a half over the inner turf.

You’ll recall that Grassy was the winner in a seven-horse photo last year at the Spa.

I find it strange that NYRA honors the memory of Sword Dancer with a grass race inasmuch as the Hall of Famer never raced on grass.But I’m just glad that NYRA continues to honor Sword Dancer every summer on the third Saratoga Saturday.

Growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, Sword Dancer, a half-pint chestnut, was my first favorite horse, and as the years went by, I became privileged to call trainer Elliott Burch and jockey Bill Boland friends.

Of course, my fondest memory of Sword Dancer was not a happy one.

I had saved my lunch money, and got down on the Dancer at 8-1 in the 1959 Kentucky Derby.

Sword Dancer made the lead under Boland at the quarter-pole, but was floated five paths by Bill Shoemaker on Tomy Lee, who went on to win by a nose in the closest finish in Derby history.

It was also the worst beat in Derby history.

Boland naturally claimed foul. But what were the chances the stews were going to take down Shoe, already an icon, and put up a 17-year-old kid?

The chances were slim and none…and slim had long left town.

For what it’s worth, Sword Dancer went on to win the Belmont, the Woodward, Whitney, among many other major stakes, and was voted Horse of the Year ’59 in a landslide.

Tomy Lee?

He never won another race after the Derby.

And, of the 17 horses who ran in that Derby, Sword Dancer is one of only two to have a Grade One stake named for him. The other is the brilliant California mare Silver Spoon, who was a closing fifth.

Sword Dancer made his mark as a closer, and no doubt the closers will have the advantage In Saturday’s renewal of the stake.

Of the 10 horses in the Sword Dancer field, four are confirmed front-runners – Interpatation, Marlang, Marsh Side, and Al Khali. Of course, it’s doubtful that Marland and Marsh Side will be hooking up in a speed duel because both are trained by West Coast icon Neil Drysdale. In fact, it’s been five years since Drysdale ran a horse at Saratoga…and now he sends two, naturally an uncoupled entry.

One of the closers will be Expansion, who exits Grade One placings at Belmont Park in the Manhattan and Man O’War. His trainer, Chad Brown of neighboring Mechanicville, is a raging 11-for-22 at the meet, and stands second to Todd Pletcher in the standings. At age 31, he’s got his best shot ever at a Grade One with the favored Expansion.

Incidentally, Expansion is a son of Maria’s Mon, who also is the sire of Hot Summer, who was my best bet last weekend on John Piesen Racing (888 612 2283) as a Monmouth first-starter only to be scratched off the program. Keep checking out the Monmouth entries for Hot Summer.

And where is The Toddster? I thought it was illegal to run a graded stake in New York without The Man.

Actually, TP had the locally-owned Grade One winner Take the Points lined up for the Sword Dancer, but the horse suffered a leg injury last week, and went on the shelf.

Castellano had his choice of Expansion and Telling, on whom he won the ’09 Sword Dancer at 33-1, and chose Expansion. Trainer Hobby was delighted to get Gomez on Telling, who has finished no better than third in five subsequent races.

Last year, Telling had to ship from Arlington for the Sword Dancer. A shorter haul this year – from Delaware Park.

Another jockey change is Borel for Lenclud on Bearpath. Freddie has won on Bearclud at 14-1 and 19-1 (the Pan-American at Gulfstream Park), but trainer Wilkes switches to his go-to guy here.

Calivin is a mere 2-for-33 at the Spa this year, but that’s mainly because his agent Jerry Hissam is home in Louisville recovering from cancer surgery. He’ll be happy to hear from his friends and colleagues on the racetrack.

Meantime, Nick Zito’s many friends want to know when Saint Nick is going to win a race at the meet.

Nick stands 0-for-19, and runs only one horse Saturday, a first-timer named Rock Hard Nicky (I kid you not) in race eight, the first leg of the guaranteed $500,000 Late Pick Four.

Pletcher has two in the race, a $50,000 maiden-special for 2-year-olds at six furlongs. One is a firster bred and owned by Winstar Farm named Heisman; the other is a $500,000 colt owned by Repole Stable named Stay Thirsty. This son of Bernardini finished second as the favorite in his debut at Belmont, and will again be favored.

Then there is Brock, a $2.3 million yearling by Distorted Humor having his first start for Rachel Alexandra’s people – Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen. Only this time the rider is Dominguez, rather than Borel.

Finally, a word about Trickmeister.

Two weeks back, we mentioned here that Trickmeister, who won the Barbaro Stakes at Delaware for Larry and Cindy Jones, was later purchased for $750,000 by IEAH, and turned over to Rick Dutrow – a transaction that the trades caught up to 10 days later.

Well, Trickmeister is training lights-out at Saratoga for Dutrow, and will make his first start for his new connections in the Travers on Aug. 28. I’m sure you’ll see plenty of ink about Trickmeister in the next two weeks.

As for Team Jones, they will be looking Saturday to win the Monmouth Oaks for the third straight year – this time with hot favorite No Such Word.

Thanks for tuning in. Good luck this weekend, and don’t forget to get with John Piesen Racing here online for all the best weekend action.

19
Nov

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