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Mar 31, 2006

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Turfway Park put out a release today bragging that the facility, despite snow and bitter cold, posted an all-time attendance record last Saturday, Lane's End Stakes Day, formerly Jim Beam Day and Galleryfurniture.com Day.

Hooray for Turfway Park.

But let's look beneath the numbers.

Strong Contender, who would have been the favorite for the Lane's End, was bumped from the race. The reason: the field was limited to 12 horses by earnings. As Strong Contender was being vanned up from Florida, some of the wise old Kentucky hardboots conspired to swell the field from nine to 12.

Bingo! The plan worked to perfection, and John Ward, the trainer of Strong Contender, had to make a U-turn. You would think the boys wouldn't gang up like that on Ward, a hardboot himself. But Ward wasn't an ordinary hardboot. He was a Kentucky Derby-winning hardboot.

The Lane's End itself was a farce. With A City, the blowout winner at 48-1, was a horse who was running for a $40,000 tag two months ago. And the favorite, Irish import Silent Times, ran dead last. The final time of 1:51 would be fine for a quarter-claimer, but hardly befitting a $500,000 stake.

(By the by, Malameeze, touted in this space last week, finished third at 20-1, and paid $11.40 to show. One fellow thanked me. He bet the horse win and show, and doubled his money. Who knows? Maybe someone out there bet all-all-Malameeze-all.)

But give Ward credit. He didn't complain a whiff, and simply returned Strong Contender to Florida to race another day, maybe in the Wood Memorial.

But the biggest story of the weekend was the TV coverage.

Meaning ESPN.

Remember the previous week when four major 3-year-old races, including the Gotham and Rebel, were supposed to be televised by ESPN during a 90-minute window. But an exhibition baseball game between Cuba and the Dominican Republic ran long. Actually it didn't run long. It ran three hours, which is the average length of any baseball game.

As a result, the racing show ran 30 minutes, and three of the four races were shown on tape delay without telling the public.

But that was nothing compared to last Saturday.

ESPN had a 60-minute racing show scheduled, to be highlighted by the Lane's End and Rushaway from Turfway.

And this time a tennis match ran long. Only it didn't really run long. It was a best of three sets, and the third set was a 6-0 slamdunk. As a result, the 60-minute racing show was condensed to eight minutes. It would have been zero minutes if the poor schnook who lost the tennis match had had the decency to win at least one game in set three.

In the eight minutes of air time, ESPN did manage to show the Lane's End live, but blew off the Rushaway entirely. And that was a legitimate race, won by a legitimate horse High Cotton, from the barn of two-time Eclipse trainer Todd Pletcher.

There was no time for any further racing coverage because at the top of the hour, ESPN had to switch to women's basketball from the Summit Arena in downtown Hot Springs, Ark., or two miles north of where this piece is being written.

The official count for the game was 987, and that I assume includes the popcorn vendors. At ESPN's request, the 987 folks were moved down to courtside, giving the national television audience the impression that the joint was packed with crazed fans.

The 5 p.m. start of the women's basketball game, as dictated by ESPN, was dubious at best. After all, at the time they were running the feature down the street at Oaklawn Park before a crowd of 20,000. Then there was a little thing call March Madness going full bore on CBS at the time.

There was an outstanding letter to the editor in last Sunday's Form about TV's role in racing. Check it out if you get the chance.

The next biggest story in racing this week?

That came out of New York where six Ernie Paragallo-owned horses were scratched by the stewards at Aqueduct.

The reason? It seems that trainer Frank Amonte Jr., two weeks on the job, had failed a drug test for vicodin, a painkiller for which he did not have a prescription. Amonte, it seems, wrenched his back last week, causing him pain. Since he has no health coverage, Amonte asked and received the vicodin from his father-in-law, who had a prescription.

None of this makes sense to me.

Number One: How can the lead trainer of a major stable, a stable that includes a top Kentucky Derby contender in Achilles of Troy, not have health coverage?

And:

Number Two: Why was Amonte tested in the first place? I've been around New York racing longer than I care to remember, and never once have I heard of a Nick Zito, or a Wayne Lukas or a Mack Miller getting tested for drugs.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

And, if, because of this, they cancel Achilles of Troy's scheduled trip to the Arkansas Derby, then the price on Lawyer Ron drops from even money to 4-5.

And, speaking of the Arkansas Derby, this just in: Derby prospect Private Vow this morning worked five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 at Oaklawn, out three-quarters in 1:15, with Dandy Don Meche aboard.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if Private Vow runs a lot better in the Arkansas Derby than he did in the Rebel, nor would I be surprised if Meche replaces Bridgmohan on this talented colt.

Speaking of Lawyer Ron, here's Neil Howard's take:

"My horse ( Music School) yanked his back in the Rebel, and will miss the Arkansas Derby. But I imagine there will be a lot of horses yanking their back trying to beat Lawyer Ron."

And, in case you missed it, Brother Derek, who will be the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby, worked three-quarters in a bullet 1:11 on Sunday at Santa Anita.

"Mind-blogging," said jockey Alex Solis.

Finally, I was saddened to see Oleg Cassini pass.

Back in the '80s, Cassini and I became friendly rivals as amateur drivers in standardbred races up and down the east coast. In fact, he was kind enough to design driving silks for me: blue and gold (Stanley Dancer's colors) with JP imprinted on the collar.

Oleg was as nice as he could be to everyone, especially to good-looking women, a subject which occupied most of his attention in his 92 years on earth. After all, he was married to Gene Tierney, engaged to Grace Kelly, and dated the likes of Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.

The obits understandably concentrated on Oleg's incredible career in fashion, and his success with women. Too bad there was no mention of his love and interest in horses.

My most enduring memory of Oleg Cassini was a race at The Meadowlands one warm July evening when he and I filled out the trifecta.

Rick Barry won the race. I finished second on McNamara Hanover (after getting to the half in :57), and Oleg finished third.

Talk about being in fast company.

What I most remember about that evening, as I took McNamara Hanover out of the paddock flying my Oleg Cassini silks, was Oleg telling Stan Bergstein in that engaging Italian accent:

"My horse isn't a leaver, and he isn't a finisher. Let's hope he's a breather."

Well, sad to say, Oleg Cassini has drawn his last breath.

But he had a good run.

Did he ever?



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