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Aug 15, 2003

Racing Today

By: John Piesen

The first half of the 36-day Saratoga race meeting wasnt all gloom, doom and monsoons. We saw some nice 2-year-olds, mostly from the barn of Todd Pletcher, who won a record-breaking 24 races in 18 days.That said, the most impressive 2-year-old was a colt named Birdstone, a half-brother to Bird Town from the same connections - Mary Lou Whitney and Nick Zito, the oddest of odd couples.

The day after Birdstone won his debut by a pole, a fellow called up one of those TV racing talk shows and asked: "What do you think they"ll do with the horse? Shoot for the Breeders" Cup, or wait for the Derby?"Good question because obviously no one can do both. Since the Breeders" Cup was inaugurated in 1984, no horse has yet to win the Breeders" Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby.The answer is (drum roll, please)…wait for the Derby!According to my backstretch sources, Birdstone will run in the Hopeful Stakes on Labor Day weekend at the Spa - and, win, lose or dead-heat - that"s it for the year. No Champagne, no Futurity…and no Breeders" Cup. The plan is to to give Birdstone a vacation, then ship him to Florida, and take the Florida Derby route to Louisville.Meanwhile, Bird Town, who will be the second choice in the Alabama on Saturday, also - win or lose - will skip the Breeders" Cup Distaff.

One reason is that Ms. Whitney is not a Breeders" Cup fan. The other is: who wants to hook Azeri on her home court (Santa Anita)?Azeri made it 11 straight last Sunday when she wired four manes and tales in a Grade 2 at Santa Anita, and, no doubt, will win her next start on the coast, and take a 12-race streak into the Breeders" Cup Distaff, where Bobby Frankel will be waiting with an arsenal of four-legged talent.Even in the year of Seabiscuit and Funny Cide, if Azeri pulls it off, that"s above-the-fold stuff.(I hate to run blind items in this space, but here goes: What prominent East Coast jockey has been ruled off his home track for using an illegal electronic device?)Back to Frankel.I"m getting tired of trainers bribing racetracks. It all started back in 1980 when the connections of John Henry persuaded The Meadowlands to spike their purse for the Ballantine Turf Classic to a million if they wanted the redoubtable John Henry.

The strategy worked bigtime. The Big M doubled the purse to a mill, and 40,000-plus jammed the stands to see John Henry win the race.There have been many similar scenarios since, notably in 2001 and 2002 when Monmouth Park opened the vault to to get Point Given and War Emblem. Again, the strategy worked. Both Baffert colts won before full houses.That brings us to the Pennsyvania Derby, scheduled for Philadelphia Park on Labor Day. Frankel told management that he will consider running Peace Rules in the race if the purse is raised from $500,000 to $750,000. If the purse is raised 50 per cent, Frankel might reconsider sending Peace Rules to the Pacific Classic at Del Mar (he already has Medaglia d"Oro and Milwaukee Brew in the race), and run Peace Rules in the Pa. Derby.Now it really gets interesting.Barclay Tagg is saying that if Funny Cide misses the Travers a week from Saturday (a distinct possibility), he might use the Pennyslvania Derby as a backup. After all, time is running out.

The only other rich stakes for straight 3-year-olds this year are the Pegasus and the Super Derby, and Tagg and the Brew Crew don"t seem too anxious to challenge older horses in the immediate future.It seems obvious at this point that Tagg, a respected career horseman, wants no part of the Travers for Funny Cide, who is coming off a disastrous Haskell, but the Saratoga-based owners feel otherwise.Incidentally, in order to accommodate TV, post for the Travers - in which Empire Maker will be 3-5 -- has been pushed back to 6:25 p.m., making for a rather late start at Siro"s.Hey, there is a chance that the Pennsylvania Derby will be - godforbid - a better race than the Travers.

The race may get Funny Cide, Peace Rules, and the unbeaten Soto, who put up a 114 number winning the West Virginia Derby last weekend.It was interesting that trainer Michael Dickinson told an ESPN audience 10 minutes before the West Virginia Derby that he didn"t like Soto"s chances at all"I don"t think," said Dickinson, "that one six-furlong race is enough for this horse. Maybe later."Who else but Iron Mike would stonewall a national TV audience?And, speaking of Dickinson, he brought back A Huevo from a four-year layoff in a stake on the West Virginia Derby undercard. Such is Iron Mike"s reputation that the public made A Huevo the favorite. Unfortunately, the horse didn"t run a lick.In the meantime, only Private Horde (117) put up a bigger Beyer than Soto last weekend. Can you imagine if Soto was fit? By comparison, Azeri ran a 100.

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