(Edited track report)
Jockey Richard Migliore was poised for a big Saratoga meet back in 1999. The fourth-leading rider at the Belmont Park spring meet that year, the "Mig" suffered a catastrophic arm injury when his mount broke down in a race 11 days before the Spa opener.
Forced to miss the entire 1999 Saratoga meet, Migliore could only wonder what might have been. Now four years later, the 39-year-old veteran enters the most prestigious race meet in the country off a very strong Belmont meet in which he went 43-for-211, riding winners at a 20% clip.
One mare he rode to a stakes victory at Belmont, John Oxley's Snow Dance, will try for her second straight in the Grade 1, $500,000 Diana Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on turf Saturday. The Diana is one of two important Grade 1s that day, the other is the $250,000 Test for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs. Both races will be shown live on ESPN from 5 to 6 p.m. The Diana is race 8 with a 5:10 p.m. post and the Test is race 9 going off at 5:44.
"The only year I can kind of equate to this year is the year I broke my arm," said Migliore. "I had been riding Bevo, Regally Appealing, and had been working Dat You Miz Blue, Dream Supreme and Chief Seattle. I was so loaded it was mind-boggling."
Migliore was so excited to get to Saratoga, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. He recalled a conversation with his wife, Carmela, the day before his unfortunate accident at Belmont.
"The night before I break my arm, I say to my wife, 'the way things look and the horses I'm riding, I could be leading rider at Saratoga. I know it sounds crazy, but I could be leading rider up there.'"
For Migliore, an intense competitor, things only got worse from there.
"I got out of the hospital the day before Opening Day that year down in New York. I'm laying on my couch, feel terrible, and watch four of my calls win, and not just win, but win from here to the barn," Migliore said standing about 100 feet away from the barns near the Oklahoma training track.
The tough summer was further complicated by the illness of Carmela's mother.
"I'm in one room upset because Bevo just won the Saratoga Special without me and in the other room, my mother-in-law is dying," Migliore recalled. "I said to my wife, 'How did we ever get through that?' I guess what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
That summer changed Migliore's outlook on life and how he approaches everyday.
"You have to evolve as a person and an athlete as you get older," the Long Islander said. "I'm seeing things a lot clearer because I'm not struggling so much with my weight. Physically, I'm very sound. Therefore, mentally, I'm in a good place. I think people notice that I'm so into this and so happy just to be here. It's been creating good opportunities for me."
One of those opportunities surfaces Saturday with Snow Dance, who will be competing against world-class grass females in the newly upgraded Diana.
Trainer John Ward had been looking to stretch out the 5-year-old mare in the Sheepshead Bay, but the course came up very soft for that race and Snow Dance clearly did not handle the going.
Longshot winner of the Grade 2 New York Handicap at 27-1, Migliore and Snow Dance stalked the pace and ran on to a determined one-length victory. It was her first win in more than a year.
"Mr. Ward and I spoke and he felt like she's a mare with a long run," Migliore said. "At the half-mile pole, I let my mare march on. It was the most impressive long run I've ever had from a mare in my life. I think she went her last half-mile in :46 and change-that's running."
After achieving her success at 1 1/4 miles, Snow Dance must now cut back in distance to 1 1/8 miles.
"Her cruising speed is high enough where she should have a similar position," Migliore said. "I don't see an eighth of a mile less being a disadvantage-it might be to her advantage. If she runs the race she ran last time, she'll be very difficult to beat."
The main concern for Migliore and Ward is going to be the condition of the turf course. Mid-week rains forced management to abandon turf racing Wednesday and Thursday and the sixth race on Friday was taken off the turf as well.
The connections of Wonder Again may not be so concerned about a soft course. She won a pair of races here last summer over yielding courses, including the Grade 2 Lake Placid.
Wonder Again, owned by Joan and John Phillips, has only started twice this year, a plan designed by trainer Jimmy Toner earlier in the year. She finished a half-length behind Diana rival Delta Princess in the Beaugay and was unlucky in the Just A Game while buried behind horses in the stretch.
"She's been running good, she just hasn't had any luck yet this year," Toner said. "In the Beaugay she was only about 85 percent ready. A horse came through the inside to beat us while we went outside. Second time she ran back, she stayed inside and couldn't get through.
"All she has to do is run back to the races she's been running. She loves Saratoga and she'll handle anything. I'm looking forward to get going with her."
Delta Princess is an extremely consistent 4-year-old filly, who has finished no worse than fourth in nine races with six victories. She defeated Wonder Again in the Beaugay and won a $100,000 stakes at Philadelphia Park against five rivals at 2-5 odds.
"She had a perfect trip in the Beaugay," Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. "Mike Luzzi gave her a very good ride. He saved all the ground on her and was able to get through."
Mott is somewhat concerned about the course condition for Saturday.
"She got beat in an allowance over yielding turf and got beat eight lengths over soft turf in the Just A Game," Mott said. "She seems like a firm-ground kind of horse."
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel has a pair he is considering running in the Diana. Juddmonte Farms' Heat Haze has won all three of her starts for Frankel dating back to December 27th. Her last two races resulted in Grade 3 victories, taking the Las Cienegas downhill at Santa Anita and the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
Pertuisane, owned by Frankel, won allowance races in California before finishing a game second behind Snow Dance in the New York.
Voodoo Dancer, also one of the top turf females, is always in with a shot through the stretch. Third behind Delta Princess and Wonder Again in the Beaugay, she returned to break the $1 million mark in earnings when she scored in the Beverly Hills Handicap.
Fox Ridge Farm's Riskaverse also fits. She won the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup last fall and recently was third in the New York.
The field for Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Diana Handicap:
PP, HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WGT.
1a. Heat Haze, Bobby Frankel, Jerry Bailey,118
2b. Mariensky, Christophe Clement, Corey Nakatani, 116
3. Snow Dance, John Ward Jr., Richard Migliore, 117
4b. Voodoo Dancer, Christophe Clement, Corey Nakatani, 120
5. Delta Princess, Bill Mott, Mike Luzzi, 116
6. Wonder Again, James Toner, Edgar Prado, 118
7a. Pertuisane (GB), Bobby Frankel, Javier Castellano, 115
8. Quick Tip, Neil Howard, Pat Day, 116
9. Riskaverse, Pat Kelly, John Velazquez, 118