Countdown To Saratoga

COUNTDOWN TO SARATOGA

by John Piesen

It takes just one glance at Saturday afternoon's 10-race program at Belmont Park to realize that Saratoga is just around the corner. Two things jump off the pages of the final Saturday program of the Belmont season (the Spa opens its 40-day season next Friday). First, the quality of the program...or should we say the lack of it. The feature is a mere 100-grander, the Jaipur Stakes, a Grade 3 for 4-year-olds and up at seven furlongs on the Widener Turf Course. Even the name of the race cries out Saratoga: Jaipur is known mostly for beating Ridan by a desperate nose at the finish of a race-long duel in the 1962 Travers at Saratoga, arguably the greatest race ever run at the Spa.

Eight of the other nine races on the Saturday Belmont card are for claimers and/or maidens...the exception the first race, an allowance for New York-breds. Clearly, most trainers are waiting for Saratoga. But not all. I'm checking with my sources to find out who's being sent to get barn money in Closing Week here at at Belmont and where the moneymaking opportunities are. There's still plenty and you can click here to get with me today and all weekend long for Best Bet Action from Belmont.

The second thing that jumps off the page is Mike Luzzi.

This year, Luzzi, one of the longest-tenured riders on the NYRA circuit, moved his tack to Monmouth Park, where he is enjoying modest success at the three-days-a-week facility. But Luzzi will back at Belmont for one day Saturday, and it could be a whopper.

Mike has calls in all 10 races, including Gantry, who will go favored in the Jaipur. His other mounts are -- in order -- Iron Lou, Hearted, Disco Capote, Ferocious Won, Slew Like Symptons, Cincinnati Kid, Write That Down, Tudor King and fine flyers...most of them live.

The livest may well be Gantry. Named for the legendary revivalist Elmer Gantry, he returned from a four-month layoff on June 23 at Belmont to win a six-furlong grass allowance by three-plus lengths in an "ungodly" 1:06 4/5, a course record, and under a hand ride at that. It's worth noting that was the only course or track record broken at the Belmont meeting.

Despite the fact that Gantry still has conditions, cagey old Mike Hushion, who trains the colt for the Black Swan Stable, decided to test the deep end of the pool in the Jaipur.

Gantry, who will break from post six in the seven-horse field, gets in at 118 pounds, four less than Nordic Truce, the 122-pound highweight under Jean-Luc Samyn. You may have to go back some to find the last time that Samyn rode the highweight in a Saturday stake in New York.

Right One, the other half of trainer Clement's uncoupled entry, will be ridden by Javier Castellano, who starts the week two back of Ramon Dominguez for top jock. RD will be at Delaware Park on Saturday to ride Havre de Grace in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap.

The field for the Jaipur is completed by Targhee Pass (Sanchez); Radiohead (Velasquez); Evolusionist (Castro), and Yield Bogey, the main speed with Chavez, who broke a 46-race Belmont o-fer last weekend.

The most accomplished horse in the field is D'Funnybone, but to see him you're going to have to wait to Saratoga, where he won the Hopeful. He's a main-track-only in the Jaipur, and there is no rain in the weekend forecast.

As for the Delaware Handicap, we are merely talking the Race of the Year to date.

Only five will go in the 10-furlong Grade One late Saturday at Delaware Park, but two of the five are Havre de Grace and Blind Luck, who stand one-two in the current NTRA standings.

If the voting for Horse of the Year were to be held on Sunday, the winner of the Del Cap would be unanimously voted HOY -- and it would be the third straight year in which a mare/filly received racing's most significant honor -- see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

As trainer Larry Jones pointed out in this venue two weeks back, he believes the home field advantage will be the deciding factor for Havre de Grace.

But from my perspective, Havre de Grace will win because she has considerably more early speed than Blind Luck, and as such will get the jump on her rival over the speed-favoring Delaware strip.

And it's been quite a rivalry, the sport's best in ages.

In the past year, these two great 4-year-old fillies have met five times with Blind Luck, the stretch-running Californian trained by recent Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Hollandorfer, holding a 3-2 advantage. But in their most recent meeting, on neutral grounds at Oaklawn Park, Havre de Grace, getting the jump, beat Blind Luck by three-plus lengths in the Azeri.

Hollendorfer then kept Blind Luck at home for the Apple Blossom in mid-April at Oaklawn, and Havre de Grace won easily to vault into the top spot on the NTRA list, where she's remained ever since.

Garrett Gomez will be in from the left coast to ride Blind Luck, who, at 122 pounds, will be getting two pounds from Havre de Grace.

Even, at the weights, I like Havre de Grace, who is unbeaten for trainer Jones (3-for-3).

Life At Ten, last year's Del Cap winner, and later the subject of much controversy at the Breeders' Cup, will be the speed from the rail under David Cohen,  who will be down from New York for the mount. Before making good in the Big Apple, Cohen earned his stripesat Delaware Park -- much as Dominguez did.

You'll recall that Johnny Velazquez told a national TV audience that Life At Ten was not warming up well for the Breeders' Cup Distaff last November at Churchill Downs, but the stewards paid no mind, let her run, and she was eased.

Life At Ten has since lost three straight, but trainer Pletcher has won the Del Cap four times, and this wouldn't be the first time he shocked the world.

Naturally, there's no national TV of the Del Cap, so to see it, you'll have to go to your favorite simulcast venue. At Belmont,for example, the Del Cap simulcast will go before the live 10th race.

To get five, the Delaware Park racing office twisted some arms, and convinced the connections of Love's Blush and Thundering Emilia to enter.

Speaking of Zenyatta, her trainer, John Shirreffs, is still going strong at his southern California base.

On Saturday, they will run the $250,000 Hollywood Oaks at Hollywood Park. Sherriffs won the 10-furlong grass race for 3-year-old fillies last year with the lightly-raced Harmonious, and has a shot to run one-two in the Grade One this time with the uncoupled entry of Star Billing and Nereid.

"Like Harmonious," Sherriffs say, "both these fillies are lightly-raced, and both should love the mile and a quarter."

Personally, my pick is Bizzy Caroline, who was very impressive taking the Regret in her stakes debut in mid-June at Churchill. Another danger is Cambina, a three-time stakes-winner.

Ultra Blend and Killer Graces may be the right ones in the co-feature, the $200,000 A Gleam Handicap, a Grade Two for fillies and mares at seven-eighths on the plastic.

And speaking of west coast trainers, how 'bout Mr. Baffert.

Last Saturday at Hollywood, Bullet Bob took a bit of a hit when Coil, from Lookin at Lucky's connections, got nailed in the last jump of the Swaps, but two hours later, all he did was finish one-two in the Hollywood Gold Cup with the Dudes -- First Dude and Game On Dude.

The dramatic nose victory moved First Dude, who wasn't even listed in the NTRA Top Ten going in, up to third, behind Havre De Grace and Blind Luck. That means FD will be Number Two next week.

Banned, fresh from back-to-back stakes wins, will be favored in the $600,000 Virginia Derby on Saturday evening at Colonial Downs. Jose Lezcano will be down from New York to ride Banned in the 10-furlong grass race for 3-year-olds, the signature event of the Colonial meet.

When was the last time Shug McGaughey won a big one?

The Shugster certainly hs a shot in this Grade Two with the late-running Air Support, exits a fast-closing second to Virginia Derby foe Street Game in the Hill Prince at Belmont. Both will have their New York riders -- Solis on Air Support, Prado on Street Game.

I like Air Support over Banned and Street Game in the best betting stake race of the weekend.

Thanks for checking in, don't forget to check out the John Piesen Hot Line, either here online or at 1-888-612-2283 , for my selections. And don't forget to check out my Saratoga Inside Track program. I'm looking forward to another profitable Indian summer at The Spa and hope to have you with me.

Meantime, here are some horses to watch:

NEW YORK

POWER BLAST -- Exits a second to Rice barnmate at Belmont.
JACK LONDON -- Blame the one-hole for his Belmont defeat.
QUEEN NORA -- Well-bred 2-year-old should be ready at Saratoga.
CLOUT -- Kin to Kings Bishop winner Tale of the Cat. Down the road.
HALL OF FLAMES -- Scratched downstate to await Spa debut.
SHESABRONXBOMBER -- Two-year-old should come out swinging.
WARM HUGS -- Beaten favorite at Belmont. Atones at the Spa.
THE LAURELS -- Tagg colt closed huge gap in Belmont debut.
LILA LOUANN -- Fawkes filly showed improvement last two.

NEW JERSEY

CITY GENIUS -- Figures to improve for Wesley Ward.
SWEET SUSAN -- Figures to show more speed next time.
DEAR JOHN -- Sacco colt ran into buzzsaw in off-the-turfer.
SOLID GUY -- Took some late action in Monmouth debut.
VARSITY -- Clement colt will find grass field to wire.
SLEEPLESS DIXIE -- Breen been looking for the right spot.

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