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Aug 02, 2007

Through The Binoculars


As a professional handicapper, my main focus last weekend clearly was the Pick Four on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

On a weekend filled with action, most of the attention of the racing world was focused on
the stakes Pick Four. Part of the reason was that the four races - the Diana, the Vanderbilt, the Go For Wand and the Whitney - in addition to being outstanding events on their own, served to kick off the spanking-new and widely-hyped Breeders' Cup Challenge (Win and You're In).

The importance of the four stakes were reflected in the handle. A total of $1.1 million was wagered on the Pick Four. To put that number in perspective, it was seven times more than the handle for the Pick Six, which included the same four races.

With that in mind, I spent an entire day handicapping the Pick Four for the John Piesen Hot Line (1 888 612 2283). I figured the phone would be ringing off the hook...and indeed it did.

After the first seven races, which featured bomb after bomb (producing a $163,282 Pick Four payoff), it was obvious that, with the big races coming up, some semblance of order would be restored.

Let's take a look...


I had My Typhoon on top, knowing full well that she had never won a Grade One going nine furlongs or longer...and also knowing full well that there was a rabbit in the field
(Countess Scala) capable of taking her down.

But I loved My Typhoon's last race, and I liked the fact that trainer Mott was looking for a Diana Hat Trick.

Makderah, a virtual unanimous pick in the professional handicapping community, was the 6-5 favorite...with My Typhoon the 3-1 second choice.

My Typhoon sat just off the rabbit until the end of the backstretch, at which point jockey Castro sent her to the lead. The cavalry came at her through the lane, but she held together for a three-quarter length victory over Argentina, Makderah finished third, much to the consternation of the thousands who singled her.

My Typhoon paid $8.10.

So far so good.


Commentator, the '05 Whitney winner from trainer Zito, was favored through much of the betting. But Diabolical took the late money to go off the $2.50-1 favorite. Midwest  shipper Benny the Bull was the second choice at $2.85-1, and Commentator the third choice at $2.90-1.

Diabolical is a much-improved sprinter based in Maryland with Steve Klesaris.

This has been a tough year for the Klesaris brothers.

On Preakness Eve, Steve's automobile was broadsided by a car driven by a teenager who drove right through a red light. Steve sustained severe injuries to his head and face, and was knocked unconscious. Needless to say, he is lucky to be alive, much less back training horses.

Meanwhile, Bob Klesaris, Steve's older brother, last spring went to his doctor for a routine checkup...and wound up in the hospital for quadruple-bypass surgery. Like his brother, Bob is back, and winning races on a regular basis.

As for the Vanderbilt, as always I had much respect for Commentator. I figured the only  way for him to lose was for Attila's Storm, who was coming back from injury, to hook him early and stay with him.

With fingers crossed, I put Diabolical on top, hoping for that speed duel to develop.

Fortunately, Attila's Storm did stay with Commentator through a :44 2/5 half. Not only did he stay, he put him away in the upper stretch.

But, as hoped, Diabolical came along late under a super ride by Pino (who was brilliant winning the first race that day on Private Lap for Steve Klesaris), and got up by a half-length over Attila's Storm, who, at 13-1, was incredibly game.

(I made a mental note to give Attila's Storm a long look down the road in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at speed-favoring Monmouth Park.)

Meantime, Diabolical paid $7. far so good.


On paper, this was a two-horse race between Ginger Punch, who was favored throughout and went off 6-5, and Ermine at 8-5.

Two races back, Ermine blew away the deepest filly/mare field of the season over my home track of Oaklawn Park. I chose to forgive her subsequent poor effort atn Churchill,
and, with some confidence, put her on top.

I took a shot and put Soul Search (the 20-1 outsider) second, delegating Ginger Punch to third.

When I watched the mares come on track, I knew I was in trouble.

Ginger Punch looked like a million bucks. The rest of them looked like claimers.

Sure enough, Ginger Punch ran to her looks, and won by six.

Ermine, simply put, never ran a lick. Finished last, beaten 15 lengths.

Next time -- hopefully -- I'll know better.

But all I know is this time I felt very stupid.


Last Friday in this space I discussed the Whitney at length, and focused on Lawyer Ron and Papi Chullo in a field so well-matched that only four pounds separated the 12 horses.

I pointed out that I watched in person last April when Lawyer Ron and Papi Chullo faced each other in the Oaklawn Handicap. I remember spending maybe two minutes handicapping the race that day. Lawyer Ron was an absolute standout going in, and won by a pole at odds-on.

Papi Chullo?

Dead lost as the 20-1 rank outsider.

Since that race, Lawyer Ron finished second from Death Valley in the Met Mile at Belmont, and somehow found a way to get beat a nose at 1-9 in the Salvator Mile at

So here we go to the Whitney where Lawyer Ron and Papi Chullo would go off at the identical price - 5.50-1 co-third choice.

As readers of this space well know, there has been no bigger Lawyer Ron fan than this writer for the last 18 months. He was my Kentucky Derby pick last year, and I have often referred to him here as - with the retirement of Invasor - the best handicap horse in training.

On the other hand, I was astounded by Papi Chullo's performance in the Birdstone Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard. I made him my "Horse of the Year" special that day on the Piesen Hot Line, and watched flabbergasted as he overcame a stumbling start to win by a pole and a half.

For the Whitney, I tossed the other 10 horses and came down to Lawyer Ron and Papi Chullo.

When Papi got the two-hole, and Ron the 11, I reluctantly called it 2-11 on the Hot Line.

Obviously, we all saw what happened. Lawyer Ron broke running under Johnny V, was three-wide into and out of the first turn, sat the perfect stalking trip on the best part of the racetrack, blew by Wanderin Boy turning for home, and won for fun.

Hard to believe, but this was the first Grade One for Lawyer Ron. And, as a result, the Hines Family, the original owners of LR, under the terms of the contract, received an
additional $750,000 for the horse winning a Grade One.

It was interesting to see that the Racing Form couldn't believe Ron's 1:46 3/5 track record for the nine furlongs. The Form even went to the time and trouble to lodge a
formal protest about the time. But, after several reviews, NYRA determined the final time was accurate.

It sure seemed strange the next day to pick up a copy of the New York Daily News, and see good buddy Lawyer Ron's photo on page one.

I was thrilled for the horse, and for Team Holthus who developed the horse.

As for trainer Pletcher, this was the the third straight weekend in which the Toddster ran a losing favorite (in this case Magna Graduate) and won the race with a horse at a bigger price He did it in the Virginia Derby and Delaware Handicap the two prior weekends.

As for the Pick Four, the folks who boxed my selections did catch a $340 payoff. But obviously it should have been a complete sweep.

This game is all about timing.

On Sunday morning, a prominent trainer told me that I was a damn fool.

"I hate to tell you this, John," he said, "but you need to know that I watched Papi Chullo work the other day with a claimer...and he got beat five lengths!"

Now he tells me.

P.S. I don't know if there has been a formal announcement yet, but I did learn this weekend from an insider that the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27 at Monmouth will definitely be the swan song for Street Sense. The colt was sold to the sheiks for $50 million, and will be based and bred in Kentucky in 2008.

Meantime, I have mixed feelings about Street Sense's performance in the Jim Dandy. I don't think he was all that impressive...but maybe it was just a matter of the colt being dead short for the race, and he will improve dramatically in the Travers.

Trainer Nafzger does have a history of peaking his horses for the big races.

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