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Jul 22, 2005

THRU THE BINOCULARS

By: JOHN PIESEN


TOP RIDERS DOMINATE AT THE SPA -- NYRA BOMBSHELL

Through the years, the one constant about Saratoga racing is the domination by

 the top downstate riders -- the Corderos, the Belmontes, and, in recent times, the

 Baileys, Velazquezes and Prados.

Agents of second and third-tier riders go to the Spa each year hoping to average

a winner a week.

"Show me where I can sign for five winners, and I'll be there," one agent told me.

That said, you can be sure that Bailey, Prado and Johnny V will win their share this

summer at the six-week Saratoga meeting, which kicks off Wednesday.

But this year there is a catch.

The Big Three will have to earn every winner because there will be four new very

 talented shooters in town. They are -- in alphabetical order -- Rafael Bejarano,

 Eibar Coa, Ramon Dominguez...and Gary Stevens.

Suddenly the Big Three is morphed into the Magnificent Seven...and bettors

 take note.

A word about each:

Eibar Coa took a huge gamble this year, switching his tack from Monmouth, where

 has been No. 2 (behind the injured Joe Bravo) to New York. And the gamble

paid off in a big way. Riding for virtually every top outfit on the grounds, Coa is

 going to finish second to Prado at the current Belmont meet with 50-plus winners.

This will be Coa's first real shot at Saratoga, and look for him to have a big meet.

However, don't look for Coa to be signing autographs on the path from the jocks' room

 to the paddock. Coa is all business when he leaves the room.

Rafael Bejarano, a top dog on the Kentucky circuit, tested the waters at Aqueduct

last year, and made a huge impact among horseplayers and horse trainers.

Bejarano dominated the Churchill Downs spring meet with 64 winners, and comes to

 Saratoga on top of his game. He is particularly adept on front-runners, a major plus

at the Spa, and he will ride first or second call for trainers Frankel, Dutrow and Zito.

Ramon Dominguez, whom many feel is the best young rider in North America, is

 winning at his usual 29 per cent clip this year at his regular home base at Delaware Park. Obviously, he will be giving up multiple winners a day at that track to take on the big

boys at Saratoga.

Forget that misstep Dominguez took on Scrappy T. in the Preakness. That was an

 aberration. Look for RD to ride first call for most of the Maryland/Delaware trainers

 at the Spa as well as for many New York regulars.

An example of how much respect New York horsemen have for Dominguez occurred

last week.

Andy Berg, president of the far-flung Gumpster Stable, had Clever Electrician all

cranked up for the Tom Fool at Belmont. But Berg was devastated when he learned

that Dominguez would be unavailable. He was at Delaware to ride the Del 'Cap card.

"This kid is the best young rider in the business," said Berg. "I win the race if he

rides Clever Electrician."

Dominguez couldn't ride Clever Electrician, and the New York-bred settled for third.

Unlike Coa, Bejarano and Dominguez, Gary Stevens has enjoyed much success in

 his limited forays to Saratoga in the past. But this will be the first time that Stevens

 will ride full-time at the Spa.

Commuting from Del Mar over the years, Stevens has won the Travers twice, with

Thunder Gulch in '95, and with Point Given in '01; the Whitney twice, and the

Hopeful and Spinaway.

Due to bad knees, Stevens has been on the brink of retirement the last few years,

especially in the wake of his well-received portrayal of George Woolf in Seabiscuit,

but he can put his acting career on hold for a while.

Consider...Stevens rode full-time at Churchill for the first time this spring, and all he

did was ride 22 winners from 82 mounts.

Don't expect Stevens to finish one-two in the Spa standings, but a 20 per cent win

 clip is not out of the question, and look for him to be especially effective in stakes.

 A lot of those trainers for whom he rode winners in Kentucky are heading for Saratoga.

Stevens is a Hall of Famer for a reason.

Meanwhile, as this is being written, NYRA is unleashing a bombshell announcement:

NYRA has changed a major Pick Six rule at Saratoga.

As we all know, mid-day thunderstorms often cause a race or races to come off the

grass at the Spa. Since many of these races are in the pick six, the bettors have to

take their lumps. They either have action on horses who have no chance on a sloppy

 main track, or they scratch into the favorite, most of whom lose.

It took a while, but NYRA today decided to change its policy. In such cases when

 races are switched from the grass to the dirt after betting has started, that race will

 be declared a winner on all pick six tickets.

Congrats to NYRA. But it doesn't make up for firing Mike Lakow, David Hicks and

Dr. Celeste Kunz for reasons unknown.



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