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Sep 04, 2009

THRU THE BINOCULARS

By: JOHN PIESEN


Saratoga. It's a tough game.

For a guy who rode only one winner in seven weeks at Saratoga, good buddy Calvin Borel sure is living large.

Shortly after dusk on Monday morning, Borel stood at the rail of the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga to watch Rachel Alexandra complete her preparation for Saturday's $750,000 Woodward with a solid :49 half-mile under exercise rider Dominic Terry. That will be Calvin in the saddle late Saturday afternoon.

Moments later, Calvin climbed aboard Mine That Bird for the first time in 10 weeks, and worked the Derby winner an easy half-mile.

Later in the morning, Jerry Hissam, Borel's long-time agent, took a cell phone call from the trainer of Mine That Bird.

You remember Mine That Bird, now the "other" Bird, the one on whom Borel rode to victory in the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 on the first Saturday of May. MTB then finished second to Rachel Alexandra under jockey Smith in the Preakness, third under Borel in the Belmont, and third under Smith in the West Virginia Derby.

The conversation was short and sweet, to wit:

CW: "Jerry, you want the call?"
JH: "I'll be there."

And so, Calvin Borel has a two-race commitment on Mine That Bird -- the Goodwood Stakes on Oct. 10 at Santa Anita, and the Breeders' Cup Classic at the same venue on Nov. 7.

"Calvin and I appreciate the opportunity to get back on Mine That Bird," Hissam told me while the field for the first race was going to the gate. "I think it's obvious that Calvin is the right rider for him, and we're tickled pink to get back on him."

(Yes...he really said tickled pink.)

This will be one busy weekend for Borel. In addition to riding Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward, he will ride one for Todd Pletcher in the co-featured Forego that day, and one for Dallas Stewart in the Spinaway on Sunday, which will be Borel's final day at the Spa.

Mine That Bird meantime will be flown Tuesday from Newark to El Paso. Next Monday he will lead the post parade for the All-American Q-H Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, and then will move on to Santa Anita for the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup.

In the meantime, Summer Bird came out of his Travers victory in good order, and now will be pointed by trainer Ice for the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 3 at Belmont Park. Barring misfortune, SB will then head for Santa Anita for a rubber match with Mine That Bird in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

MTB beat Summer Bird in the Derby, Summer Bird turned the tables in the Belmont, and a victory by either Bird in the Classic will presumably wrap up the 3-year-old male championship.

But quite obviously, the best 3-year-old in the world is Rachel Alexandra...and she improved her status last Saturday without leaving her Saratoga barn. After all, she beat the Travers winner by six lengths a month back in the Haskell at Monmouth Park.

That said, Rachel is no gimee Saturday when she attempts to become the first filly to win the Woodward. The fact that Saratoga is the Graveyard of Favorites was hammered home convincingly on Saturday when all four favorites were beaten, including Quality Road in the Travers and Munnings in the King's Bishop, in the $1 million guaranteed all-stakes pick four.

It is estimated that $5 million was lost -- legally and otherwise -- on Toddster barnmates Munnings and Quality Road.

That said, Rachel will be no better than 1-5 for the Woodward, the field for which will be drawn Wednesday at 11 a.m. in the Saratoga paddock.

The main challenger to Rachel in the Woodward will be flown in Tuesday from Louisville. His name is Macho Again, who was shipped back to Churchill Downs to prepare for the Woodward following his fast-closing second in the Whitney Stakes on Aug. 8 at the Spa.

"Obviously," owner Terry Finley told me by phone from Saratoga, "we have all the respect in the world for Rachel, but we feel we have a special horse in Macho Again, and we (trainer Dallas Stewart) will be taking our best shot.

"Rachel has whipped some decent fields," Finley added, "but she'll be facing an entire different group of horses Saturday. These are older, mature horses who have competed on the big stage for some time. The water will get a lot deeper for Rachel in the Woodward. She's going to have block and tackle some nice horses, especially mine."

Ironically, there was a point last spring when Finley felt he had the best 3-year-old filly going in Justwhistledixie, a winner of four straight graded stakes. Dixie was entered against Rachel in the Kentucky Oaks, but was forced to scratch due to a pulled muscle, and Rachel went on to win the race by 20 lengths.

Dixie is done for the year, and Finley is hopeful to get her back to the races next winter at Gulfstream Park. How ironic would it be if Finley, unable to beat Rachel with a 3-year-old filly, beats her with a 4-year-old colt?

So just how does Finley feel about Macho Again giving Rachel eight pounds? "We're not happy about it," he said, "...but it is what it is."

Macho Again, a son of Macho Uno out of the Wild Again mare Go Donna Go, won the Jim Dandy last year at Saratoga, and this year won the Stephen Foster -- beating Einstein, at the time the top-ranked older horse -- and the New Orleans Handicap.

A confirmed stretch-runner, Macho Again will need some one to challenge Rachel early. Obviously, if Rachel does get loose on the lead with her eight-pound concession, graveyard or not, she'll be awfully tough to beat.

Besides, her connections -- Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen -- know how to win the Woodward. They did so last year with two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.

The year before, Lawyer Ron -- who, like Rachel and Summer Bird learned the game at Oaklawn Park -- won the Woodward with nine furlongs in 1:47 3/5, the fastest time since the race was switched from Belmont Park.

That record no doubt will be in jeopardy on Saturday.

Speaking of Summer Bird, as predicted in this space last Friday, the lead in most Sunday papers was "Like father, like son."

But I would expect that unlike papa Birdstone, whose '04 Travers victory was his last hurrah, Summer Bird, barring injury, is just getting started.

Did you notice that Summer Bird and Hold Me Back, the one-two finishers in the Travers, were the only ones in the Travers field of seven to have run in the Kentucky Derby?

While we are at it, did you notice that the Toddster didn't exactly move up Quality Road? Wonder what previous trainer Jimmy Jerkens was thinking.

And did you notice that when Quality Road dumped jockey Velazquez at the gate, ESPN announcer Bailey gave an honest answer to a query as to how this would affect the Travers favorite.

"Not a good thing," Jerry said.

And did you notice what host Randy Moss said about the decision by Rachel's connections to bypass the Travers for the Woodward?

"Next Saturday," Moss pointed out, "...is opening day of college football."

Quite obviously, there will be no room on the ESPN plate for the Woodward, much to the chagrin of racings fans throughout the land. With Rachel, ESPN's Travers ratings would have gone through the roof.

In the space of nine days, we saw three other fillies turn in outstanding performances at the Spa -- Careless Jewel in the Alabama, Music Note in the Ballerina, Icon Project in the Personal Ensign.

How would you like to see these three hook up in the Beldame downstate?

I don't recall seeing a name jockey having a worse weekend than Alan Garcia, the '08 Saratoga champion, and '09 runner up to Ramon Dominguez.

On Saturday, Garcia went 0-8, including beaten favorites Rutherienne, Florentino and Selva. He did finish first on Vineyard Haven in the King's Bishop, but was DQd to second, and suspended seven days, and Travers mount Our Edge was eased.

On Sunday, Garcia was 0-7, six of the seven losers at double digits, starting with Al's Deputy at 4-5.

Garcia was granted an appeal on the suspension, so he will ride the final week at the Spa. Would be no surprise if he turns it around.

Finally, how much tougher is it to win a race at Saratoga than at Monmouth?

Bruce Levine would know.

Levine tops the Monmouth standings by a mile with 36 winners from 107 starters. At the same time, he was 0-for-39 at the Spa before he won Sunday's
fifth race with Soda Pop Kid.

Saratoga. It's a tough game.



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