West Virginia Rolls Into Empire Classic

Spite the Devil and West Virginia, the first two finishers in last year's Empire Classic at Belmont Park, return for Saturday's renewal of the $250,000 race, the centerpiece of the $1 million New York Showcase Day for state breds.

The Empire Classic, at 1 1/8 miles, is one of seven stakes races on the card restricted to New York horses.

Donald and Mary Zuckerman's homebred West Virginia was the favorite last year when he finished second, beaten a head by Spite the Devil. Mr. Determined, who finished third, also returns.

Rested over the winter, West Virginia lost his first three starts earlier this year, two of which came against New York-breds. It was in the Iselin Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III) last time out where the 4-year-old scored his first win of the season, upsetting stablemate Purge at 16-1.

"We kicked around the idea of running him back in between the Iselin (Aug. 28) and now, but the timing wasn't right," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "This is the race we've been pointing to all year. If he could just run a tad better than he did last year -- he ran real big last year, so we're looking for a similar effort this year."

West Virginia has earned $590,870 in 16 starts with six wins.

West Virginia won't be the only horse Pletcher saddles in the Empire Classic. He will also send out Three Amigos Stable's Carminooch, owned in part by "The Sopranos" star Tony "Paulie Walnuts" Sirico.

Carminooch ran second to Naughty New Yorker in the Albany for 3-year-olds upstate at 11-1. Pletcher tried him on the turf in the Ashley T. Cole last time out, an experiment that did not work out.

Spite The Devil is 0-for-3 this year, including a pair of blowouts in graded stakes races. His best start this season was a rallying second behind Chowders First in the Kings Point in May. The 5-year-old gelding has not run since June 11.

Fox Ridge Farm's Naughty New Yorker will try to better his distant sixth-place finish in the Pegasus (gr. III) at The Meadowlands Sept. 30. The late-running son of Quiet American won the Mike Lee and Albany this year, two parts of the OTB's Big Apple Triple. This will be his first foray against older stakes horses.

The pacesetter figures to be Windmill Manor Farm's Yankee Mon, who beat West Virginia in the Evan Shipman. After running a decent fourth in the Forego (gr. I) at Saratoga, trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. wheeled him back in just six days and the colt flopped as the 1-2 favorite in the General Douglas MacArthur.

Galloping Grocer, the top New York-bred juvenile of 2004, remains winless from six starts this year. His only race since the Preakness was a second-place try in the New York Stallion Stakes at Saratoga.

Also on the card for New York Showcase Day is the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Sixteen entered with the possibility of rain forcing the race to the main track.

Friendly Island and Clever Electrician, the 1-2 finishers in last year's Hudson Handicap, renew their rivalry in the $125,000 stakes at six furlongs.

Magnolia Jackson resumes her comeback from a series of setbacks during 2004 and the first half of the current season in the $125,000 Iroquois Handicap for fillies and mares going seven furlongs. She'll take on Travelator, a winner of 12 of 30 starts and $620,000.

Trainer Ramon "Mike" Hernandez has a legitimate shot at sweeping both $100,000 juvenile stakes. He'll take a one-two punch into the Sleepy Hollow for colts and geldings with Classic Pack and Couth. In the Maid of the Mist, Hernandez will send out the undefeated Artistic Express, winner of the Joseph A. Gimma here last month.

Fillies and mares will run nine furlongs on the inner turf course in the $150,000 Ticonderoga, which drew a maximum field of 16 entrants. Three horses will carry top weight of 119 pounds in the Ticonderoga – On the Bus, Kate Winslet and Lady Bi Bi.

$250,000 Empire Classic, 3 & up, New York-breds, 1 1/8 miles
1. Spite the Devil, H. Allen Jerkens, Javier Castellano, 119
2. Runningforpresident, Bob Barbara, Pablo Morales, 114
3. West Virginia, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 120
4. Yankee Mon, Richard Dutrow Jr., Edgar Prado, 119
5. Organizer, Dominic Galluscio, Ramon Dominguez, 111
6. Seaside Salute, Billy Turner, Jerry Bailey, 114
7. Naughty New Yorker, Pat Kelly, Jean-Luc Samyn, 114
8. Raffit, H. James Bond, Norberto Arroyo Jr., 112
9. Mr. Determined, Richard DeMola, Jorge Chavez, 113
10. Galloping Grocer, Dominick Schettino, Eibar Coa, 114
11. Carminooch, Todd Pletcher, Mike Luzzi, 113
12. Stevie Stressor, Edward Allard, Pablo Fragoso, 113