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In many ways, this year’s Kentucky Derby, just 11 days away, will be a horse of a different color.

The actual two minutes of racing should not be a departure from the past. There will be a large field. The start will be a cavalry charge. The best horse may or may not win, depending on jockey pilot success in finding a crack in the usual Great Wall of Churchill that the horses create as they turn for home.

Other similarities will remain. The mint juleps will taste like medicine and be overpriced. New boundaries, in design and common sense, will be pushed in women’s hats.

And, within 30 seconds of the winner’s crossing the finish line, the horse’s connections will be asked about winning a Triple Crown.

Indeed, the Derby is the happiest time of the year for racing. But then, this year’s especially needs to be, because much in the sport leading up to it hasn’t been a belly laugh.

Here’s a scorecard of current-day horse racing:

Item: Hollywood Park’s summer meeting begins Wednesday and goes through July 19. It is held at a time when weather in Southern California is near-perfect and the interest of the wagering public is rekindled by Triple Crown season.

Problem: The land developers from Northern California who purchased Hollywood Park for its real estate value have not committed to racing at the Inglewood track past the close of the 2009 fall meeting, which ends just before Christmas. This now appears to be more about grading land than graded stakes.

Item: Santa Anita, during its Oak Tree meeting last October, held what Breeders’ Cup officials termed its “best-ever” event, and is scheduled to do it again this year, Nov. 6-7.

Problem: Santa Anita, a profitable track, is owned by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, an unprofitable corporation currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Monday, the Breeders’ Cup gave Santa Anita an April 30 deadline to establish a plan assuring that whoever owns the track in November can actually put on the event. Ron Charles is president of Santa Anita and an officer of Magna. He says the situation is close to being fixed but there is “still a little cloud” right now. Remember Charles in your prayers.

Item: The second leg of the Triple Crown, the favorite among the three for most horsemen, is the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 16. Pimlico has as much tradition as it has peeling paint. It is a charming dump.

Problem: Pimlico is also owned by Magna, and the bankruptcy proceedings have Maryland politicians — many of the same people who hemmed and hawed while neighboring states added slot machines to their tracks and not only saved racing but enticed away many Maryland horses — in a panic of breast-beating and oratory. The fear is that the Preakness will be taken from Maryland, and with it more than a century of horse racing tradition.

Last week, the state passed emergency legislation that authorized, if necessary, the takeover of Pimlico by eminent domain. The New York Times quoted interested developer Carl Verstandig, who says that he never said he would tear down Pimlico, as saying the politicians “have been going off half-cocked into a rampage of political chaos and showboating.”

Item: Last year, the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. (NTRA) established its Safety and Integrity Alliance. It has a group that travels to tracks, inspects them and hands out accreditation. Its stated mission is to “protect the sport’s integrity and increase public awareness of horse racing’s safety and integrity programs.”

Problem: Ernie Paragallo, a prominent owner and breeder from New York, was arrested April 10 on charges of animal cruelty for allegedly allowing horses under his care to become malnourished. Various animal protection groups have been vanning away horses from Paragallo’s farm and describing some of them as “bags of bones, literally walking hides.” Paragallo is not some small player in horse racing. He owns half of super-stud Unbridled Song, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial in 1996 and a fifth-place finisher in that year’s Kentucky Derby.

Problem: California trainer Jeff Mullins will saddle I Want Revenge for the Derby. On the day I Want Revenge won the Wood at Aqueduct in New York, security guards found Mullins giving one of his horses (not I Want Revenge) a substance called Air Power with a syringe. The substance has been likened to cough medicine. Horses are not allowed medications on race day, but Mullins said he thought it was OK because he had been allowed in the area with the material to administer the substance. Then, last week, Mullins watched one of his horses train at Churchill Downs without having a license to do so, and when confronted, said he had been told the licensing office had been closed that day. It wasn’t.

Mullins was given a one-week suspension and a $2,500 fine for the Aqueduct incident and was not penalized for the Churchill Downs incident. Apparently, the “sport’s integrity” is best protected during weeks other than those of the Triple Crown races. Mullins’ one-week penalty will start the day after the Kentucky Derby.

Item: On April 4, the Santa Anita Derby, one of the top prep races for the Kentucky Derby, attracted 50,915. Most were there to see two great 3-year-olds, Pioneerof The Nile and The Pamplemousse. It had the makings of a match race.

Problem: Most fans were on-site when they learned that The Pamplemousse had been scratched that morning because of a tendon injury. The determination of the injury had been made by state veterinarian Jill Bailey. Trainer Julio Canani was so furious that he could be heard yelling at track officials. Word even circulated that the horse would be fine, that Bailey had overreacted, and that The Pamplemousse would race the next weekend at Keeneland in another Derby prep.

By Monday, it was announced that The Pamplemousse would be out for at least six months. And at the end of Santa Anita’s meeting Sunday, the track announced that Jill Bailey had been named “employee of the meeting.”

Item: On March 7, Einstein, a Brazil-bred horse handled by Florida trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi, won the Santa Anita Handicap. Pitts-Blasi became the first female trainer to do that. It had been another well-attended day, 31,496, during a Santa Anita winter meeting full of upticks.

Problem: A month later, lawyers Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham were convicted of stealing millions of dollars from clients for whom they got large settlements in the fen-phen diet scandal. Each faces more than 100 years in prison. Einstein, a likely favorite for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, is owned in part by Gallion and Cunningham.

Also, the largest purse-winning horse in North America, the recently retired Curlin, is owned and beloved by Kendall-Jackson Winery founder Jess Jackson. His partners, inherited in the purchase deal, are Gallion and Cunningham.

Item: Racing is the sport of kings, and in so many ways, deservedly so.

Problem: The kings are the animals who compete, not the people who surround them.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but what I saw yesterday at Santa Anita is most disturbing.

As the horses loaded into the gate for the seventh race, the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap, MR GRUFF was listed at 4/1 on the tote board. After breaking cleanly and getting to the front, his odds dropped to 5/2. He went on to win while paying $7.60, instead of the $10 or so bettors were expecting at post time.

In the 10th race, a maiden claimer for 3-year-olds, favorite FOREIGN TAUREAN was 8/5 going into the gate, but took a huge drop to even-money after breaking well and setting the pace. Again, wire-to-wire, paying $4.00 instead of $5.20 or $5.40 that was expected. In both cases a payoff drop of about 25% from what horseplayers could have expected to receive even if they had wagered at the last possible moment.

To add insult to injury, Pick 4 “will pays” into the final race showed ‘TAUREAN returning $443. However, when the actual payoff came back at $401, winning bettors had been dinged another 10%. As if beating the races isn’t hard enough, winning gamblers lost large percentages of their profits due to the above examples.

Batch betting? Past posting? Taking advantage of the seven-second delay afforded to mutuel clerks in order to cancel (or not cancel) a ticket after the gates open? Something had a very foul odor in the air on the last Saturday of the meet. These problems (loopholes?) need to be fixed immediately.

It’s tough enough trying to handicap the Kentucky Derby without the added guessing game of whether the synthetic horses can successfully transfer their form to dirt.

There’s no doubt Pioneerof the Nile, the Empire Maker colt who gave trainer Bob Baffert his record fifth Santa Anita Derby victory April 4, should be among the favorites when the horses load into the starting gate May 2.

But will he be as successful over Churchill Downs’ main surface as he has been on Cushion Track and Pro-Ride?

“He beat us twice and we’ve run against him twice, so I am scared of him,” said David Lanzman, co-owner of another of the Derby favorites, I Want Revenge. “I’d be stupid not to be. But I wouldn’t trade positions with anybody.

“We’ve answered a big question by running over the dirt and running the way we did, and he’s not going to be able to answer that question until May.

I Want Revenge was runner-up to Pioneerof the Nile in last December’s $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. He finished third, behind Pioneerof the Nile and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7 at Santa Anita before shipping east to continue Derby preparations.

Since switching to the dirt at Aqueduct, I Want Revenge has been the most impressive of the Derby hopefuls, winning the Gotham Stakes by an eye-opening 8 1/2Â lengths March 7 and then overcoming a terrible start and traffic trouble in the stretch to win the Wood Memorial on April 4 like he’d had a clean trip.

He and Pioneerof the Nile are just two of four California horses that figure prominently in the Derby, joining Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, the latter of whom won two stakes over Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta synthetic surface this year before finishing second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby.

But Chocolate Candy, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, is another who has never raced on dirt. All nine of his career starts have come in California. It’s debatable whether his closing kick will be as effective at Churchill Downs as it has been on artificial surfaces.

Ahmed Zayat, Pioneerof the Nile’s owner, doesn’t think the dirt will be a detriment to his colt, pointing out that his sire finished second in the Derby and won the Belmont. His dam won by 11 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs in record time.

“And his trainer really likes dirt better,” Baffert cracked.

Here’s a look at our top five heading into Derby week:

1. I Want Revenge: If this son of Stephen Got Even runs back to his New York form, it’s all over. His victory in the Wood, when he lost four or five lengths at the start, was one of the most impressive Derby preps in years.

Of course, he might also have had a fondness for Aqueduct, meaning he won’t run like a monster at Churchill. Point Given, who won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 and wound up Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old, didn’t fire on Derby Day and wound up fifth.

2. Pioneerof the Nile: If Garrett Gomez doesn’t opt for this guy over Dunkirk as his Derby mount, it will be a surprise. But Baffert doesn’t seem too concerned over the uncertainty.

“If Gomez doesn’t ride him, I might go down to Los Alamitos and find a jockey down there,” he joked.

3. Friesan Fire: The Louisiana Derby winner will go into the Derby off a seven-week layoff, which could prove beneficial. He might be fresher than many of the other colts.

Oh, and the horse the A.P. Indy colt beat at the Fair Grounds on March 14?

Papa Clem, who gained more supporters with his victory in the Arkansas Derby last weekend.

4. Quality Road: A quarter crack in his right hind foot doesn’t figure to cost the Florida Derby winner a start in the Kentucky Derby, according to foot specialist Ian McKinlay, who treated Big Brown’s famous quarter crack before last year’s Belmont Stakes and is watching over Quality Road.

The fact it cropped up a month before the Derby and not a week before the big race like Big Brown’s also plays in Quality Road’s favor.

5. Chocolate Candy: The son of Candy Ride’s closing style is perfect for the Derby if he proves he can handle the dirt.

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DOWN THE STRETCH

In addition to the big four of Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, two other California-based colts – Square Eddie and Mr. Hot Stuff, third in the Santa Anita Derby – also have Kentucky Derby aspirations. “It just shows you the quality of horses in California is pretty strong … there’s a lot of nice horses, and this is a tough Derby field,” said BobBaffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile. “There are six, seven, eight horses there … I think it’s going to be a very competitive race. I’m just glad that I’m part of the top five.”

Former jockey Gary Stevens, winner of three Kentucky Derbies during his Hall of Fame career, agrees with Baffert that this is a nice batch of 3-year-olds. “I think it’s an outstanding crop,” he said. “At the top of my list right now I’ve got I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire … Quality Road ran huge the other day. It’s as good a 3-year-old crop at this point in time as I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a quality bunch.” Stevens, a racing analyst for NBC and Horse Racing TV, said he doesn’t miss riding. “Not so much, because of that adrenaline rush of doing live shows,” he said. “It’s the same feeling, and I know when I’ve done a good job and I know when I’ve done an OK job and I know when I’ve done a poor job the same way as when I rode.”

Contact Art Wilson at art.wilson@sgvn.com

The changes for the 2009 season at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club are coming fast and furious.

Track officials will go before the California Horse Racing Board next month to drop Monday racing, cutting its 43-day meet to 37 days. And on Sunday, officials said they plan to revamp their stakes schedule, including moving its two biggest races —- the $1 million Pacific Classic and Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

Del Mar intends to create a racing festival on the final weekend of its meet, Sept. 4-7, with the Pacific Classic moved back one week from its traditional spot on the racing calendar to Sept. 6 and the Futurity moved up two days from its closing-day position to Labor Day, Sept. 7.

“We felt like we could make it a helluva weekend,” track president Joe Harper said. “It will make that weekend more special for us.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s vice president of racing, said the idea came from brainstorming sessions between the track’s marketing and racing offices.

“We want to go out with a bang,” Robbins said. “We’re going to have four Grade Is at the end of the meet and see how it works out.”

Del Mar will begin Labor Day weekend on Sept. 4 with the Rancho Bernardo Handicap, a sprint for older fillies and mares. That will be followed on Sept. 5 by the Grade I Debutante for 2-year-old fillies.

On Sept. 6, in addition to the Pacific Classic, Del Mar will run the Torrey Pines Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, the Grade II Pat O’Brien Handicap for sprinters at 7 furlongs and the Grade II Del Mar Derby for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles on the turf course.

With the 2-year-old Futurity championship moved to Sept. 7, the closing-day feature will now be the Grade II Palomar Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf.

Additionally, Del Mar will move the San Diego Handicap —- a prep for the Pacific Classic —- from the first weekend of the meet to the second weekend and the Best Pal Stakes for 2-year-olds up one week to have more time between that race and the Futurity.

Del Mar won’t officially announce its stakes schedule until the CHRB accepts —- or rejects —- its request to drop racing days at an April 23 meeting.

Robbins said he has received varying reactions from horsemen over the proposed changes to the racing schedule.

“It just depends on the philosophy of the individual,” he said. “The majority (of the trainers) want more spacing (between races).”

Said Harper: “Every time we change anything, we’re worried about the horsemen. We think this is a good deal.”

Harper said he was concerned about a backlash from fans who have made Pacific Classic weekend a traditional getaway in August.

“That’s always a concern,” he said. “We think we have buttressed the whole (Labor Day weekend), and the Pacific Classic will still be a good day.”

Unlike in previous years, Del Mar doesn’t have a television package for this year’s Pacific Classic on ESPN, but Harper said he’s not worried about it and that the move of the premier race was never discussed in relation to television coverage.

“Television is not dictacting where we put these things,” said Harper, who last year allowed the Pacific Classic to be run at 6:45 p.m. so it could be seen in prime time on the East Coast. “You run into problems when you allow television to tell you when to run races. We’ll just do our own thing on television or not.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nahill at jnahill@nctimes.com or (760) 740-3550.

Bill Strauss arrived for his staff meeting Monday morning to find a mint julep stationed at his seat.

Independently, Strauss’ brother Jeff received a gift basket containing the same cocktail’s key components: bourbon and mint.

This was neither a coincidence nor a conspiracy, but sure symptoms that Kentucky Derby Fever has again infiltrated San Diego County.

The Strauss brothers own 20 percent of The Pamplemousse, a 3-year-old colt on an accelerating collision course with America’s most renowned horse race. Because the brothers are relative rookies as thoroughbred investors, and because The Pamplemousse was one of 34,712 registered foals in the United States in 2006, the odds against this happening conjures a photo finish between Ridiculous and Preposterous.

Yet here it is and here they are – a pair of transplanted New Yorkers on a jubilant joy ride, living the outlandish dream of horsemen worldwide.

“Dreaming is the best part of it,” Jeff Strauss said. “People say “ ‘Don’t jinx your horse.’ But what the hell, most of the fun is talking about it, what may become of this.”

What Jeff Strauss once rationalized as a marketing vehicle for his Pamplemousse Grille has become a bona-fide Derby favorite. Fresh from his third straight victory, an emphatic six-length triumph in Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, The Pamplemousse improved from 20-1 to 10-1 in the Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch.

Only two horses are assigned shorter odds: Old Fashioned at 5-1 and Pioneerof the Nile at 8-1. Selected by bloodstock agent Alex Solis Jr. and ridden by jockey Alex Solis Sr., The Pamplemousse is scheduled to run his last Derby prep on April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Barring injury, it will then be mint juleps on the menu.

“The other ones when they win, it’s the adrenaline for that race, and you’re just excited for that race,” Bill Strauss said. “With this one, it’s the hope and the potential and the possibility that you’re watching. It’s a completely different feeling. . . .

“Of all the horses, I’ve seen, he has as good a shot at any. The good news is he’s getting better every race and he’s happy, he’s feeling great. He wants to run. I would not trade him for any other horse running right now.”

When asked about his horse’s Derby prospects, Jeff Strauss admitted that he was already “thinking about all three of them,” meaning Triple Crown legs. If that statement seems slightly audacious, why bother living the dream if you’re not going to live it large?

Clearly, the Strauss brothers do not recoil from risk. Bill Strauss, 50, says he had “zero” knowledge of the flower business when he started ProFlowers.com, but trusted his direct marketing expertise to build a powerful Internet brand. Jeff Strauss, 47, opened a high-end French restaurant across the street from the Del Mar backstretch, fully aware that the track’s annual meet spans just seven weeks.

Both brothers are gamblers. Neither is in need of a bailout.

“He’s Mister Midas,” Bill Strauss said of his sibling, the star chef. “Everything he touches turns to gold. If you ever want to do something and you’re not sure it will be successful, get him as your partner and it’s a home run.”

The brothers were first drawn to the track by the lure of legalized gambling, and made their first trek to the winner’s circle 30 years ago, as they remember, in Delaware. But though they have hosted an annual benefit for disabled jockeys, they were basically racetrack dabblers until 2007, when they took a minority stake in four horses during the Keeneland Fall Sale. They added four more horses to their shared stable the following spring in Florida, including the gray colt that would become The Pamplemousse.

Pamplemousse is French for “grapefruit,” a translation that was initially lost on Jeff Strauss during an apprenticeship at Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. The word ultimately lodged in Strauss’lexicon through the sustained screaming of chef Serge Chollet.

Strauss’ apprenticeship was unpaid, but his piece of The Pamplemousse has proved to be enormously profitable. Purchased for a total price of $150,000, The Pamplemousse has already earned $209,280 in five career starts. The Strauss brothers’ original $30,000 investment might soon be worth millions should some Sheikh decide to try to buy the Derby.

“There are always offers coming in,” Bill Strauss said. “But this is the dream. This is what you do it for. As Jeff says, after this horse retires, we might never own another horse because the odds of us being in March with another Derby contender are slim to none.”

Jeff Strauss also said a mint julep might be improved by adding grapefruit. Or, if you prefer, “Pamplemousse.”

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Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; tim.sullivan@uniontrib.com

Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; (Contact)

The years of the six-day racing week at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club apparently will come to an end.

Del Mar is in the process of asking authorities to go to a five-day race week and drop Monday racing, said track president Joe Harper on Friday.

“We’re worried we won’t be able to fill a race card one day,” said a source, who asked for anonymity.

The track, which will enter its third season with the synthetic Polytrack in 2009, saw its average starters per race drop from 8.63 in 2007 to 8.49 last year.

Del Mar has raced six days a week —- Wednesday through Monday —- since 1946, but a sluggish economy and smaller horse population have officials worried they will not be able to fill a six-day program.

“We’re still crunching the numbers to tell if we’re right, but I think we are,” said Harper, whose track’s handle dropped 7 percent in 2008. “If you are going to change something, the patron had better get a better deal, and we think the patron will get a better product. We also think the bottom line will do better.”

Del Mar, which opens July 22, will ask to drop six racing days, all Mondays. Del Mar is expected to race on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Its current 43-day meet is due to end Sept. 9.

Del Mar must get approval for this plan from its own board of directors, the Del Mar fair board, the state racetrack leasing commission and the California Horse Racing Board. Del Mar will meet with the fair board on March 10 and is expected to formally ask for the change at an April meeting of the CHRB.

In hopes of not losing too much revenue —- Del Mar averaged $8 million in handle on a corresponding six Mondays in 2008 —- by the dropped eight-race card per week, the track will ask to add one race on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. That would mean a net loss of five races per week or about 35 races for the entire meet.

Del Mar would also change its popular 4 p.m. post time on Fridays to 3:30 for the first four weeks of the meet and 3 p.m. for the final three weeks.

“We’re going to have more races on better days,” Harper said. “I think it’s a pretty good deal.”

Harper said Del Mar has been working with the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) during the process in order to have all parties on board.

“We still have some work to do,” Harper said. “I was up at Santa Anita on Thursday and didn’t get any negative feedback.

“We’re a pretty conservative group. We run a lean ship. We haven’t absolutely said we’re going to do this, but the economy isn’t a pretty picture.

“I expect questions (along the way), but we don’t make these kind of decisions or recommendations lightly.”

Peter Miller, who lives in Carlsbad and trains out of the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in Bonsall, said he was in favor of the change.

“I think it’s a good idea and a good call,” said Miller, who finished tied for 11th in training standings last year with seven winners. “The horse population, economy and oversaturation of racing are all good reasons to give the horses and people a break. It’s never a vacation for the trainers and the help to come down to Del Mar and race six days a week. I’ve been hoping they would do this for years. I had hoped they would add weeks to the meet and not lose days, though.”

Harper said by state law Del Mar can only race seven weeks a year, so adding additional weeks would have to come through the legislature.

Oceanside’s Jeffrey Bloom, vice president of West Coast operations for West Point Thoroughbreds, believes the change will be good for the industry.

“The number of races we’re losing isn’t significant,” Bloom said. “I think it will be better from a fan standpoint and horse standpoint. It will rejuvenate everyone. I think you will see more robust fields and more competitive races.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nahill at jnahill@nctimes.com or (760) 740-3550.

Taking place in early April at Aintree Race course in Liverpool, England, The Grand National has firmly established itself as the greatest horse race on earth. The unique mix of a gruellingly long course and heart-cluthingly high ‘fences’ together with so much tradition and legend make the race an absolute must on the sporting calender.

Since its inaugural running in 1839, The National has thrown up so many great stories of heroism, luck and tragedy that the race has captured the imagination like no other. Race fans as well as the general public line the streets outside betting shops to take part in a bit of grand national betting, and everyone has an opinion on who will win.

Last years winner was 7-1JF Comply Or Die and the same horse is sure to be a strong contender this time round. The extra weight he will be carrying looks unlikely to put off the the punters, who well remember how gracefully he sauntered around Aintrees gruelling 4 mile course, and how easily he mastered her 30 fences. Last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Denman has also been entered and should be amongst the favourites, but it is worth noting that Only Grittar (7/1), West Tip (15/2), Rough Quest (7/1), Earth Summit (7/1) and Hedgehunter (7/1) have been returned at less than 10/1 since 1978.

Grand National Betting

In lieu of anything semi-meaningful to write about, below is a shameless plug for my new venture, Summit Racing LLC. I’ve been putting most of my time and effort into this, so there has been very little time to keep up on the blog. Â

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One theory has it that The Police’s 1980 album Zenyatta Mondatta came from the words Zenith and Monde (French for “World”), meaning Top of the World. Another says the translation came from Sanskrit, also meaning Top of the World. Whatever the case, after watching the thoroughbred version of Zenyatta win the Ladies Classic on Breeders’ Cup Day 1, you saw a horse on top of the (racing) world. After making her customary rally-wide move from last, Zenyatta ran by Cocoa Beach to remain perfect, running her record to nine-for-nine. If there has been a better filly or mare in my lifetime, I haven’t seen her. I remember Ruffian as a kid, and more recently the undefeated Personal Ensign, and brilliant runners like Inside Information and Azeri. They might have been as good but none of them better than Zenyatta. The gorgeous amazon, who exudes sheer class when she steps on the racetrack, runs the same race every time, lagging behind early, picking it up on the far turn under light urging from rider Mike Smith, then swooping by her outclassed rivals through the lane. Here’s hoping she stays in training next year and comes back to win another Classic—the Breeders’ Cup Classic against the boys.

The Breeders’ Cup card kicked off with a huge performance from Ventura, who rallied from far back to win the Filly and Mare Sprint in 1:19.90, just a hundredth of a second off the track record. She ran by champion Indian Blessing like that one was tied to a post, drawing off powerfully through the final 100 yards. Late runners, seemingly no matter how wide, had all the best of it today. Besides Zenyatta and Ventura, Juvenile Fillies winner Stardom Bound wrapped up a championship with a Zenyatta-like move on the far turn, rallying 5-wide into the lane to win impressively while giving Smith the first of his two BC wins on the day.

Prior to that race, Maram remained undefeated in three starts by narrowly holding off Euro invader Heart Shaped in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, with favored pacesetter Laragh tiring to third. In the other turf event, Forever Together duplicated her latest Keeneland victory with another strong stretch run to sweep by Sealy Hill and Wait a While to take the Filly and Mare Turf.

Although I have been somewhat ambivalent about the BC going to a two-day event, I have to admit I really enjoyed today’s prelim card. Many felt it was a slight to Zenyatta to be relegated to the all-female Friday card, but the other side of the argument is that she got the spotlight all to herself. The crowd of 31,257 gave her a rousing ovation as she returned to the winner’s circle, knowing her status as one of the all-time greats had been secured.

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store for us. Let’s see if Curlin can put on the same kind of show.

Last weekend Oak Tree carded eight Breeders’ Cup prep races, including a record six Grade I’s on Saturday. Add another Grade I (Norfolk) and a Grade II (Oak Tree Mile) on Sunday, and we had a sensory overload weekend. Of those eight features, we saw a number of solid performances but two runners stood out—Zenyatta in the Lady’s Secret and Stardom Bound in the Oak Leaf. Let’s take a chronological look, with a brief recap of each:

The Clement Hirsch at 1 1/4 on turf saw Red Giant wear down Out of Control in what amounted to a two-horse race as favorite Spring House didn’t fire at all. The top two figure to move on to the BC Turf but my gut feeling is they are a cut below the biggies.

Zenyatta produced another scintillating performance in the Lady’s Secret, blowing away Hystericalady through the final furlong with her usual devastating stretch kick. We’re running out of superlatives to describe this amazon, who looks like the shortest-priced winner on BC day.

In the Ancient Title, Cost of Freedom showed his freakish win at Del Mar when making his first start off the John Sadler claim was no fluke when he held off odds-on Street Boss to win in 1:07.2 (over a very glib track). In Summation had some traffic trouble but was third best and Idiot Proof isn’t the same horse as he was last year at this time. The top two figure to be major players in the BC Sprint.

Stardom Bound followed up her devastating Debutante win with an equally impressive Oak Leaf score while stretching out around two turns. I had my doubts (especially after she had been kicked by a pony the day before) but she dispelled those by simply outclassing her opposition. She isn’t beating anything out here but will go into the BC Juvenile Fillies as a solid favorite.

In the Yellow Ribbon, Wait a While continued her love affair with the Santa Anita course by winning this race for the second time (also won the ’06 edition). She got a perfect trip behind the leaders, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch and held gamely over classy Vacare and late-running Black Mamba.

And to wrap up Saturday’s card, hard-knocking Well Armed took the Goodwood Stakes as the solid choice. He looked to be in some trouble on the far turn as rider Aaron Gryder was asking hard but ‘Armed responded in mid-stretch and won fairly comfortably. If the “Big Two” don’t fire in the BC Classic, he has to be given some sort of look, although I wasn’t visually blown away by the Goodwood. Tiago perked up and ran second, with Albertus Maximus (too far back early?) third.

On Sunday, Hyperbaric got the jump and held off fast-closing Tybalt to win the Oak Tree Mile while giving Garrett Gomez his 3,000th winner. The Julio Canani-trained gelding has won three straight and this barn knows how to win the BC Mile. The runner-up ran huge, coming the final furlong in under 11 seconds.

Finally, maiden Street Hero won a cavalry charge to take the Norfolk over Midshipman, Believe in Hope and Del Conte. The number might have been okay but to me this was an ugly race, and I’ll take a stand against all these local on the big day.

NOTES: Through five days of racing the revamped Pro-Ride main track has played very fair, with horses winning from everywhere. Although the surface got a little too glib for my taste on the weekend, I think it has been fair to all types of runners. The turf, while lightning fast, has also played fairly. Through the first week, there were 12 turf races, with four won in wire-to-wire fashion (two when the rails were out 30 feet, which promotes speed)….Corey Nakatani suffered a broken collarbone on opening day and is likely to miss the rest of the meet…Lainies Lion was the first horse to take advantage of the new CHRB rule that protects horses coming back from 180-day or more layoffs. Those horses cannot be claimed if entered back at or above their last claiming price…the second race of the meet saw a very rare double disqualification. Not only was it a ticky-tack call but the objection was lodged by the jockey of the original fourth-place finisher, not by the stewards…Curlin arrived here the day after becoming North America’s richest racehorse by winning the JC Gold Cup at Belmont on Saturday. His arrival wasn’t exactly the Beatles coming to America for the first time but he was greeted by a handful of track officials, media and photographers.

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