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Jul 16, 2010

The 'wow' factor in horse racing

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - This past Saturday had three stakes races that were the equal of any last-second result in the more popular sports in the world. The word 'wow' had to be shouted by anyone who watched the races as they happened.

The finishes of the Delaware Oaks, Man o'War and Hollywood Gold Cup should all have been shown on every sports news program in the nation. Each finish was decided by no more than half a length, with one somehow not resulting in a deadheat.

First on the afternoon was the $250,000 Delaware Oaks from beautiful Delaware Park. The 1 1/16-mile race featured leading three-year-old filly Blind Luck, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks in April.

Ridden by Joel Rosario, Blind Luck got away from the gate slowly on the sloppy track, leaving herself with a lot of ground to make up. Sent off as the 2-5 favorite in the seven-horse field, the filly gave the 'bridge jumpers' something to worry about.

At the top of the stretch there was no way the favorite was going to get up in time to win. She had made a four wide move around the final turn, but was still four lengths off the lead.

Havre de Grace had the lead inside the furlong pole, and looked like the winner. Somehow, Rosario got Blind Luck rolling ever closer to the lead and was able to catch Havre de Grace.

The naked eye couldn't separate the two fillies, so it appeared that either Havre de Grace held on for the win or there was going to be a deadheat. The photo revealed that Blind Luck got her nose to the wire first.

"It was close, but she got there," said winning rider Joel Rosario. "She broke slow and since the track was wet, so sometimes you have to take your time and let your horse settle. After I passed the 3/8th's pole, I asked her and she proved to be a nice filly and she beat a nice filly."

"You know the good ones just find a way to get there," said victorious trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "I mean she has been beaten before, but she is a very good filly and she just finds a way to there. We are very grateful and very thankful. Joel is a very strong rider and he is one of the strongest finishers in the country. We are still looking at the Alabama (at Saratoga on August 21) for her next start."

A short time later at Belmont Park, another 2-5 favorite needed every inch of a race to get a win. Champion grass runner Gio Ponti came in still seeking his first win of 2010, and managed to record it in dramatic fashion.

The $600,000 Man o'War featured eight turf specialists and Gio Ponti was running last on the firm course. Jockey Ramon Dominguez had his mount four wide around the turn for home in the 1 3/-8-mile race. Gio Ponti, who is also the defending champion older handicap horse, put on a furious rally down the stretch to catch Mission Approved to post a neck victory.

"I was a little concerned about the way the race was going to unfold," said Dominguez. "I knew there wasn't a whole lot of speed, and that there were a lot of horses with similar running styles to mine. As the race unfolded, I was a little concerned about the slow pace, but I was very happy with the way he was traveling. Turning for home, I felt it was a matter of getting a little racing luck. When he split horses, at that point, I felt a little more confident, and that he would get there."

"The grass is green, and even greener now," winning trainer Christophe Clement exclaimed. "I'm delighted with Gio Ponti. Everyone made a big deal of him getting beaten (by stablemate Winchester in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan on June 5), but I never had a doubt that the horse was the leader of his division and I'm delighted with the way he ran.

"Now we can enjoy it a little bit, see how he comes out of it. His well-being is the main thing."

Gio Ponti is most likely to defend in the Arlington Million on August 21.

Completing the trifecta of fantastic finishes was the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, where Rail Trip was going after a second straight win in the race. A victory would make him the top handicap horse in California.

Jockey Rafael Bejarano had the 2-5 favorite sitting third in the six-horse field behind pacesetter Compari. Rail Trip came wide around the final turn.

"I was traveling well and was in good position on the first turn," noted Bejarano. "After the first turn, (Cigar Man) just pushed me out. I was trying to follow the speed, but they were going so slow. I didn't want to rush him so I waited for the half-mile."

At the same time, 8-1 longshot Awesome Gem was racing fifth while saving ground on the rail. However, as the field entered the stretch the seven-year-old gelding did not look like a winner.

Rail Trip had the lead at the top of stretch, but jockey David Flores got Awesome Gem rolling on the rail.

Awesome Gem caught Rail Trip with less than 100 yards to run and registered a half-length victory.

"Everybody went at the half-mile," Flores said, "and I tried not to lose my position and wait for that pocket to come at the end. Mike Smith (Compari) was about ready to shut off the hole, but he looked like he ran out of horse so it was very nice of him to leave me that spot. When that hole opened up I couldn't look for any better spot than that. That was the most beautiful thing, when you have a horse that can accelerate like that at any time."

Winning trainer Craig Dollase somehow knew that his charge was capable of pulling the upset over Rail Trip.

"I was very confident because Awesome Gem is not a very good work horse," Dollase commented, "and his last two works he had really been on edge. The timing worked out great. We mapped this out. We stuck to the plan. His works over this track were too good to not take a shot."

Three great races, three excellent finishes to prove that the Sport of Kings can rarely be equaled for pure excitement.

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