It was a day the New York Racing Association would like to bottle. On Sept. 7, it had beautiful weather, three grade I stakes, three top-class performances, and two horses winning their respective races for the second straight year. In the Gazelle Handicap (gr. I), Imperial Gesture continued her comeback by defeating Take Charge Lady and Bella Bellucci. Then came the star of the afternoon, With Anticipation, who drew a round of applause after gamely winning the Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT) for the second straight year. Finally, there was Lido Palace, who rallied to win his second straight Woodward Stakes (gr. I), a feat accomplished only by superstars Cigar, Kelso, Forego, Sword Dancer, and Slew o' Gold. So, why was there a slightly bitter taste to this otherwise magnificent dish served up by NYRA? Because fans and horsemen had to endure one of those speed-biased Belmont surfaces that pop up on occasion. Going into the Woodward, of the five dirt races run, every winner was either first or second throughout, and no one else even came close. Horses were setting rapid early fractions, but still were able to open up in the stretch, while the closers could only spin their wheels, unable to make up any ground. It was apparent in the Woodward that last year's Jerome Handicap (gr. II) winner, Express Tour, who had finished out of the money in his only two starts this year, and the hard-knocking Gander, who hadn't won a stakes in almost a year, were going to be much tougher than their past performances suggested. Both had good early speed and were gritty competitors on their best day. The speed bias looked to be their only hope, as John and Jerry Amerman's 2-5 favorite, Lido Palace, appeared virtually unbeatable on paper. He had shown good tactical speed in several races last year, but was 10 lengths back in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) in his previous start. Right from the gate, a sharp Lido Palace was taken away from his game plan, as he sat just behind Express Tour and Gander through a taxing opening half in :45.93, while being boxed in for most of the race. In his last three starts, Lido Palace had run his average opening half-mile in :48.20. Even though Express Tour and Gander slowed down at the end, running their last three-eighths in about :38, Lido Palace still had to turn in a gut-wrenching final quarter to catch them, as jockey Jorge Chavez pasted him with 23 right-handed whips--five of them before he had even reached the quarter pole. At the finish, Lido Palace was three-quarters of a length in front of a stubborn Gander, who finished a neck in front of an equally stubborn Express Tour. Lido Palace was criticized on ESPN2 the following day for his slow final three-eighths, his low Beyer Speed Figure, and the fact he closed much slower than Imperial Gesture, whose final time in the Gazelle was 1:47.12, compared to 1:47.75 for Lido Palace. "If they knew the horse, they'd know he didn't run a bad race," said trainer Bobby Frankel, who watched the race from his home in California. "That wasn't his style of running. I told Chavez to get him away from there, but he was much sharper than usual. Not only was he sitting right off that pace, he was bottled up the entire way. Just disregard the race. Let's just say he won a grade I race having an off day." Frankel, who will run Lido Palace next in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) along with his Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Milwaukee Brew, said the Amermans will decide after that race whether they'll put up the $800,000 supplementary fee for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). Frankel feels they will consider it if Lido Palace should win impressively. The field assembled for the $500,000 Woodward, one of America's most prestigious races, was an indication of just how depleted the older horse division has become. Lido Palace's five opponents combined had run in 36 graded stakes, with five victories--the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II), Philip H. Iselin Handicap (gr. II), Jerome Handicap (gr. II) Excelsior Handicap (gr. III), and Westchester Handicap (gr. III). As for how the older horses will stack up against the 3-year-olds in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Arlington Park, remember how Napoleon's army marched through Russia and into Moscow and never even saw a Russian? Well, the older horses marching to the Classic are not going to see a 3-year-old in the fall prep races, with the possible exception of Repent in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The trainers of top 3-year-olds War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, Came Home, and sprinter Gygistar are all hoping to use the same strategy as the Russians: go into hiding and keep away from any skirmishes in order to have fresh troops when the real battle begins. Regardless of how the Windy City War plays out, there still are big races to be run. And the Woodward, despite its shortcomings, did showcase the current active leader of the older horse division, which is still reeling from the losses of Left Bank, Street Cry, Sky Jack, Seeking Daylight, and Mizzen Mast. Following a disastrous trip to the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) last year, Lido Palace has been slow to regain his form of last summer, but has improved with each race. "Breaking from the rail bothered me with this horse," Frankel said. "I wanted him to get to the outside at the top of the stretch. He's a bit of a lazy horse, but when I saw Chavez take him to the outside I was confident. He likes to wear down his rivals. It means a lot for the horse, the owners, and me to win this race in back-to-back years." He's Still 'With It'
Following the Man o' War Stakes, with an appreciative crowd applauding another heroic effort by With Anticipation, Jonathan Sheppard stood on the track watching his old warrior about to be led into the winner's circle. "Amazing. I can't believe it," he said. "I have to keep reminding myself this is the same horse I was looking at at two, three, and four. He was a nice horse back then, but now he's reached a different level." That level likely is somewhere between multiple grade I winner and cult hero. The more the 7-year-old gelding keeps turning certain defeats into victories, the higher he will ascend in the hearts of racing fans who admire courage and determination, especially when displayed by one of racing's charismatic senior citizens. And his almost-white color and big, long stride only enhance his rapidly growing popularity. With Anticipation, owned and bred by George Strawbridge Jr., was quick enough way back when he was a 2-year-old to win going 5 1/2 and six furlongs. Although basically an allowance horse in his earlier years, he did jump up and finish third in the 2000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. I) and second in the Widener Handicap (gr. III). When he was unable to maintain his form consistently at that level, Sheppard, following a last-place finish in the 2001 Gulfstream Park Handicap, put him on the turf in an allowance race at Keeneland. Although he had only raced once on the turf in 29 career starts, the son of Relaunch romped by 8 3/4 lengths. He hasn't looked back since. Continued...(Chart, Equibase)