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Sep 08, 2006

Through The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


As a lifelong resident of the east coast, I am admittedly not attuned as much as I should be to California racing. But I couldn't help but notice what happened at Del Mar on Labor Day.

In case you missed it, Victor Espinoza, the leading rider at the track where the surf meets the turf, won the first six races on Monday's program, and then added a seventh on Point Ashley in the feature - the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante.

Not even my guy Joe Bravo could match that performance. Jersey Joe merely won six that afternoon at Monmouth Park by the sea.

Espinoza finished his day with seven wins, a second and a third from nine mounts. That's a month's production for most riders. And since Victor rode the last winner on Sunday, he won seven straight races.

Does this make Victor Espinoza an Eclipse Award-winner? I don't know. We'll have to see how his numbers stack up against jockeys Prado, Coa and Velazquez by year's end, but he certainly has to be a major contender.

You also have to wonder if Espinoza is the best of a modest riding colony on the West Coast.

It wasn't long ago that California had the best riding colony in the nation. But it was watered down with the retirements of Pincay, Delahoussaye and McCarron, and the loss of Gomez to the East Coast.

It's obvious there was a dropoff in talent on the West Coast because, in the last year alone, jockeys Court, Chavez and Arroyo among others chose to switch their tack to California seeking instant gratification. All have made an immediate impact.

But it doesn't matter if Espinoza was riding against a bunch of college freshmen.

Nobody wins seven straight races at a major racing venue.

Not even Joe Bravo.

As for Point Ashley, her come-from-behind, 2 ½-length victory in the Debutante moves her to the head of the class of 2-year-old fillies, and stamps her the clear-cut favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

This is a good thing for the national media because her trainer is Bob Baffert.

In case you were wondering, Pinata, this corner's favorite 2-year-old filly, was scratched from the Debutante because

1) her connections wanted no part of Point Ashley, and
2) the filly hadn't fully recovered from an ailment that cost her the summer.

The connections (Jerry Brown and friends) of Pinata are looking at a stake on the Super Derby undercard Sept. 23 at Louisiana Downs.

Somewhat significantly, on the same day that Point Ashley became the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, we found a favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

With Gomez riding for trainer Pletcher, Circular Quay rallied from downtown Glens Falls to win the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga by a pole, beating, among others, a nice colt named Unbridled Express.

The victory was the third in as many starts for Circular Quay, who got the seven furlongs in 1:23, a tick faster than Point Ashley's time at Del Mar. And this was with Gomez wrapping up the last 100 yards.

But I'm still not giving up on Unbridled Express.

Trained by wily Bernie Flint, Unbridled Express had finished third in his first start at Churchill Downs ("we gave him one"), and then won next pop by four lengths.

The offers came pouring in after that race, and principal owner Ron Hillerich, a Louisville power broker, gladly accepted a $1.8 million offer for half-interest. That makes the colt worth $3.6 million on the basis of a maiden win. Not bad.

The new owners are a salty group. They include Richard Santulli, the CEO of Netjets; Warren Buffet, said to be the richest man alive, and Bobby Flay, the Secretariat of the kitchen.

Unbridled Express certainly didn't look like he was worth $3.6 million as he retreated to third in the Hopeful, but he lives to race another day. And at least he'll have home field advantage in the Breeders' Cup.


The other major racing event of the weekend came off the track.

It was learned that, for the first time since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, Tom Durkin will not be calling the BC races for television from Churchill on Nov. 4.

It seems that Durkin, the voice of NYRA since the early '90s, has an exclusive TV contract with NBC. And since ESPN this year is replacing NBC as the Breeders' Cup outlet, Durkin is gonzo…and California whiz Trevor Denman, who has served as an analyst on previous BC telecasts, gets the job.

Who knows what's behind the switch? But we do know that Durkin took the news in stride. We learned that on Saturday he walked through the Saratoga press box, and handed the media a press release, which read in part:

"I signed the exclusive agreement (with NBC), and you can't have it both ways. I am very happy with the contract I signed. I feel fine about it. Twenty-two years is a good run to hold a job. This is not a sad or bad feeling, and I'm not the weepy type anyway. I will call 42 Grade 1 races next year, so I'm not wanting for good horses. There's nothing negative about this at all."

My take?

Durkin's a quality dude. So is Denman.

But it makes no difference to me who calls the races. It's just like USA Today writing reams about football announcers, and who is going where? I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, the race or the game is the show. I don't care who's making the call. I have never watched or listened to a sports event because of the announcer. And I never will.

For example, old friend Marshall Cassidy came out of retirement to call the first race Sunday at Saratoga…and, as far as I know, the earth didn't move.

Otherwise, the Saratoga meet was a good one for the sheiks, trainer Pletcher, jockeys Prado, Gomez and Leon, and, of course, the followers of this writer's world-famous phone service (1-888 612 2283). We gave out 13 stakes-winners, including a $40 number, and five other double-digit numbers.

Business-wise, the numbers were pretty much the same as last year, thanks in part to the announced crowd of 66,000 on Sunday. This number may be slightly inflated because of the spinners, who came back time and again for those wooly blankets.

Personally, I find it very sad that, in a well-heeled place like Saratoga, there are thousands of folks who will spend up to four hours in line in order to make a $20 profit.

Very sad.

But I guess it is a good thing for NYRA that it can give away those crummy blankets, and announce a crowd of 66,000, especially when it is in a life-and-death struggle to keep its franchise.

Meanwhile, Belmont Park's fall championship meet opens Friday, and the highlight will be the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7 when Bernardini and Invasor go sheik-to-sheik.



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