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Sep 01, 2006

Through The Binoculars


In past years, the Saratoga meeting ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, but this year is different.


Some NYRA suit had the brilliant idea to shift the Woodward from its traditional home at Belmont Park to the final Saturday at Saratoga. And I don’t mean brilliant in the sarcastic sense. It was a brilliant idea.


And, for a kicker, Saturday’s 53rd running of the nine-furlong Woodward, named for the poor fellow who got himself shot dead by his wife in their Long Island manse back in the ‘50s, is one of those rare late-season stakes where you won’t find a 3-5 favorite in a five-horse field. It really is a wide-open race, and the best betting major race of the season.


The field of 11 includes Flower Alley, the ’05 Travers winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up; Funny Cide, the ’03 Kentucky Derby winner, who, at age 6, has lost none of his popularity; the multiple stakes-winners Suave and Naughty New Yorker, a New York-bred obviously, and three dynamos from Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito – Sun King, Andromeda’s Hero and Wanderin Boy.


Who’ll be the favorite?


Probably Sun King, off his strong second to division leader Invasor in the Whitney, but I would not be surprised if the public goes for Funny Cide or Flower Alley.


The Woodward will go as race nine on a strong 11-race card, and will be televised nationally by ESPN from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Eastern by ESPN. This will be a great day for ESPN because at 8:00 Eastern it will give us Southern California at Arkansas from Fayetteville, Ark.


There are two significant subplots for the Woodward.


The race will be the first for Flower Alley since the death of his breeder, George Brunacini, in the tragic Lexington air crash last Sunday.


“Mr. And Mrs. Melynk (the owners of Flower Alley) are dedicating this race to Mr. Brunacini,” says trainer Todd Pletcher. “The crash was obviously a tragedy for the horse industry with Mr. Brunacini and other people who were important in the game on that flight. Johnny (jockey John Velazquez) will wear a black band on his pants.”


The other subplot involves Funny Cide.


Jack Knowlton, the principal owner of Funny Cide, is sponsoring a fundraiser Sunday morning for local journalist Kathy Ryan, who is seriously ill. Ryan has done several pieces over the years on Knowlton, and they have become good friends.


The fundraiser will be held at 10 a.m. at the yellow house next to Siro’s.


The public is invited to attend.


You will get the chance to meet and greet Knowlton and other racing luminaries, and pay your respects to Ryan, one of the brightest and most talented young journalists in the land.


I know that I for one will be rooting for Funny Cide…and for Kathy Ryan.


A Funny Cide--Flower Alley exacta indeed would be appropriate.


Pletcher is expecting a much-improved effort from Flower Alley in the wake of his poor seventh as the favorite in the Whitney.


“I was concerned,” says Pletcher, “that Flower Alley might be short in the Whitney. We’ve got that race under our belt, and he’s had some good works since then. The ducks are in order now, and it’s up to him to step up and do it.”


Pletcher was one of the proponents of the switch of the Woodward from Belmont to Saratoga.


“From a timing perspective,” he says, “It’s a perfect fit towards the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It doesn’t bother us one bit that it’s at Saratoga.”


The Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 10 furlongs will be run at Belmont on Oct. 7, and is expected to attract Invasor and Bernardini…and possibly two or three horses from the Woodward.


Flower Alley will break from post six in the Woodward, and Funny Cide, with Rich Migliore riding for Barclay Tagg, will leave from post 10.


Look for Zito to try to steal the race with Wanderin Boy, who will leave like a rocket with Javier Castellano from the outside post. And failing that, it would not disappoint Zito if Wanderin Boy may takes some starch out of the speed horses, and set things up for the closers.

Zito obviously is hoping that Sun King is that closer.


No one in the game takes tough defeats harder than Zito, and Sun King sure has had two tough ones this year. He missed by a head to Silver Train in the Met Mile, and fell a dirty nose short of catching Invasor in the Whitney.


A repeat of that race makes Sun King a winner.


Sun King is a very versatile horse,” says Nick. “He’s very good at everything he does. It would be great for him to win one of these. Those noses were inches. Head-bobs. I just hope he gets a good trip.”


Sun King will have a new rider for the Woodward. Rafael Bejarano, his regular whipper-snapper, is sidelined with broken ribs, and Zito was fortunate to get hot-riding apprentice Julien Leparoux as a replacement


Leparoux this summer already has broken Migliore’s record for most winners by an apprentice at a Saratoga meet.


“Mr. Farmer (the owner of Sun King) has been impressed with Julien’s work ethic, and his desire to ride for this stable,” says Zito. “Julien has done well with Mr. Farmer’s horses this year at Keeneland and Saratoga.”


Like Pletcher, Zito endorses the idea of running the Woodward at Saratoga.


“It certainly keeps the last weekend alive,” he says.


The dark horse in the Woodward is Wild Desert.


This horse is live,” says trainer Richard Dutrow. “There’s no question he’s live. He loves Saratoga, and he’s training well over the track.”


Moreover, Wild Desert gets the one-hole and top jock Edgar Prado.


The only knock on Wild Desert is the likelihood of a wet track.


“I see rain coming,” says Dutrow, “…and Wild Desert is not that crazy about an off-track.”


Indeed, the condition of the racing strip will have a major bearing on the Woodward.


Funny Cide, for example, does his best work on fast tracks.


But, win or lose, Funny Cide will be the main draw on Saturday. Some 10,000 Funny Cide posters will be given away, and Knowlton and Co. will be available for autographs near The Silks from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.


Zito, Pletcher and Dutrow all have shots at Grade l sweeps on Saturday.


All have major players in the $250,000 Forego Handicap, which, like the Woodward, drew a field of 11.


Zito will be represented by Commentator, who beat the ill-fated Horse of the Year Saint Liam in the ’05 Whitney; Pletcher has Friendly Island, who was a close-up second to Bordonaro in the Count Fleet at Oaklawn Park, and Dutrow has the super-tough Silver Wagon.


Prado rides Silver Wagon. Coa is on Commentator, and Gomez will be aboard Friendly Island.


The bottom line is that for once nothing will be less than 3-1 in the Woodward and Forego.


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