Countdown to the Cup: Zito Has Bad Hare Day

It's hard to say what was the weirdest part of this past weekend -- the Woodward, with only three legitimate starters; the amount of money wagered, or rather thrown away, on Rick Dutrow's rabbit entry; or the paltry 41 starters competing in the seven graded stakes.

Before you reach for your calculator, that's 5.8 starters per race. And if you throw out the 11-horse aberration in the Man o' War, that lowers the number to five starters per race for the other six stakes. That is a scary statistic when you consider the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is being run at Belmont this year.

With Bellamy Road out for the year, don't expect a big field for the Oct. 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) either. Just imagine a Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) field made up of only the horses who have fallen by the wayside – Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Afleet Alex, Giacomo, Bellamy Road, Eddington, Southern Image, and Offlee Wild. You can also throw in Pollard's Vision, Closing Argument, Noble Causeway, Wild Desert, and Eurosilver.

Welcome to Thoroughbred racing in the 21st century. You can't fault the New York Racing Association, or anyone for that matter. There simply is a shortage of top-class horses this year. Also, the new philosophy of trainers is to keep their horses fresh for the Breeders' Cup, even though those methods normally prove unsuccessful, unless you have a horse like Ghostzapper. This year, Woodward winner Saint Liam will try to emulate last year's Horse of the Year by going into the Classic off a seven-week layoff. Bobby Frankel tried it twice unsuccessfully with Medaglia d'Oro and once with Chester House. War Emblem, Pleasantly Perfect, and Came Home couldn't do it, nor could Congaree off a six-week layoff.

Saint Liam not only will have a seven-week layoff, but he won the Woodward as easily as a horse can possibly win a race. Now it will be up to Dutrow to get him fit and tough for the Classic off that "race." One thing in his favor, he did run a remarkable race against Ghostzapper in last year's Woodward coming off a five-month layoff, and at this point, he is the most accomplished distance horse in the country that is pointing for the Classic.

Getting back to the rabbits, they were two of the four Dutrow nominated to the Woodward in an effort to make sure Saint Liam, didn't "get down on his belly and give all he had" chasing his Whitney Handicap (gr. I) nemesis, Commentator, trained by Nick Zito.

There was so much talk of rabbits surrounding the Woodward that Carol Farmer, wife of Commentator's owner, Tracy Farmer, dreamed the night before the race that her cat was a rabbit.

When the two rabbits in question, Crafty Player and Show Boot, crossed the finish line a neck apart, and 62 lengths behind their triumphant stablemate, a chorus of boos rang out from the fans who did not appreciate their tag-team tactics.

But Dutrow was unperturbed. He insisted his main mission was not to run Commentator into the ground as much as it was to spare Saint Liam the same fate that befell him last year when he eyeballed Ghostzapper almost every step of the way in the Woodward, only to fall apart a week after the race. That gut-wrenching effort, coming off a long layoff, took so much out of the colt he was forced to miss the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Dutrow was going to make sure that would not happen again, especially after the Whitney, when Saint Liam had to reach into his gut trying to chase down the elusive Commentator, who had won six races (from seven starts) by an average margin of almost 10 lengths. When his late charge fell a neck short, Dutrow vowed he would not subject Saint Liam to that again in the Woodward and risk compromising his chances in the Classic.

"I believe Saint Liam is a better horse, and I don't feel he needs a rabbit in there for him to win," Dutrow said several days before the Woodward. "But he put in a helluva race last time. He gave it his all, and if he keeps doing that he'll be knocked out by the time he gets to the Breeders' Cup.

"Last year, when he ran in the Woodward, he initially came out of the race good, but a week later he fell apart and was like a dead horse for about a week, which made me pass the Breeders' Cup. I'd rather burn Zito's horse up and let Saint Liam just go out there and get the job done the right way. I'm just trying to be as safe as I can with him, that's all."

When told he'd likely hear it from all the Commentator fans, Dutrow replied, "Well, they'll be able to hear it back from all the Saint Liam fans."

Although Dutrow entered two rabbits, he planned to run only Crafty Player. He would go with Show Boot as well only if Todd Pletcher scratched Shaniko from the six-horse field. That would assure both Crafty Player and Show Boot, owned by Sanford Goldfarb, a piece of the purse -- $25,000 for fourth and $15,000 for fifth.

Pletcher decided the day before the race that unless something happened to either Saint Liam or Commentator, he would scratch Shaniko. The morning of the Woodward, Pletcher called Dutrow and asked him, "Is your horse still breathing?" When Dutrow assured him all was well with Saint Liam, Pletcher scratched Shaniko, all but sealing Commentator's fate.

The double-teaming by Rudy Rodriguez, on Crafty Player, and Raul Rojas, on Show Boot, obviously did not help Commentator. But one had to wonder if they made any difference in the outcome of the race, in which Commentator finished third, 12 1/2 lengths behind stablemate Sir Shackleton. After Saint Liam's incredibly easy two-length victory, in which track announcer Tom Durkin described the horse as "just galloping" in the final sixteenth, Gary Stevens, rider of Commentator, went over to congratulate Dutrow, telling him, "You didn't need a rabbit."

Classic survivors

With Commentator likely to shorten up in distance, that eliminates two brilliant horses from Zito's barn for the Classic, whose numbers are shrinking by the week. Still on target for the race are Saint Liam and probable Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) starters Flower Alley, Borrego, Imperialism, Suave, and possibly Funny Cide, Evening Attire, Royal Assault, and Andromeda's Hero. Zito, who trains the last two, also has Sun King and Sir Shackleton. Shippers could include Rock Hard Ten, Lava Man, Roman Ruler, Perfect Drift, and Choctaw Nation. And don't throw out the possibility of seeing the Aidan O'Brien-trained Oratorio, winner of back-to-back group I stakes at 1 1/4 miles in Europe, including his second straight score over English Derby (Eng-I) winner Motivator in last Saturday's Baileys Irish Champion Stakes (Ire-I).

O'Brien had intended to send Arlington Million (gr. IT) winner Powerscourt for Saturday's Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT), but changed his mind following an unsatisfactory work. O'Brien likely will be represented in the Arc by Saturday's St. Leger (Eng-I) winner Scorpion.

One European that had been considered for the Classic is last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Bago. But the Niarchos Family's racing manager, Alan Cooper, said this week Bago is more likely to run in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) following his attempt at a second Arc victory.

Samurai and Stevie on collision course for Juvenile

If Stevie Wonderboy is really as good as he looked in last week's Del Mar Futurity (gr. II), we could be in for an exciting Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), especially considering he and undefeated Hopeful (gr. I) winner First Samurai boast classic pedigrees and appear to have the makings of legitimate Derby horses.

Stevie Wonderboy, who destroyed his field, albeit a weak one, at Del Mar with an explosive move around horses, is by Stephen Got Even, out of a Summer Squall mare, and his maternal granddam is by the classic sire Roberto. What was impressive about the colt in addition to performance was his demeanor in the post parade. He walked along calmly and didn't seem to have a care in the world. And it would be great if he could get high-profile owner Merv Griffin to the Derby.

A pair of exciting maiden winners – Discreet Cat and Dr. Pleasure – were discussed last week. Now we can add Flanders Fields, a good-looking son of A.P. Indy out of champion Flanders who was impressive breaking his maiden at by 6 1/2 lengths at Belmont Saturday for trainer Dallas Stewart.

Another trainer holding a strong hand in the juvenile division is Steve Asmussen, who has Private Vow, an easy winner of his last two starts at Saratoga, and the undefeated He's got Grit, runaway winner of the Sapling Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth.

Best turf horse no one talks about

For those who take Better Talk Now for granted, it's time to recognize this hard-trying warrior for what he is, especially since it will likely be up to him, and Kitten's Joy, once again to hold off the European assault on Oct. 29. Better Talk Now was again helped by his own rabbit, Shake the Bank, who could join him again in the Turf. But the presence of Shake the Bank, who dashes off by himself with the sole purpose of setting a legitimate pace, is no different than what many of the top European trainers do for their big stars. Pacesetters, as they're called on the grass, are a way of life in Europe and are not designed to take down one specific horse.

As for Better Talk Now, he never runs a bad race, and has the closing kick to match the Europeans. In the Man o' War, he out-finished two classy horses in King's Drama and Relaxed Gesture, the one-two finishers in the Sword Dancer (gr. IT). When Breeders' Cup time rolls around, and all those heavy hitters from Europe show up, we'll be glad this guy is still around.

Speaking of the Turf, a new star emerged last Sunday by the name of Shakespeare, who not only made it four-for-four in his brief career with a 3 3/4-length victory in the Belmont Breeders' Cup (gr. IIT), he looked spectacular doing it. The way this son of Theatrical exploded when set down in the stretch and the smooth, effortless way he moves was reminiscent of Manila, one of the most exciting turf horses of all time. And to blow away a top-class horse like Meteor Storm the way he did in a course-record 1:45 flat indicates he could be something special. He's got some serious stretching out to do, from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT), but if he can step up in that race and run well against Kitten's Joy, while building some bottom, he could be a major force in the BC Turf.

Also stepping up in the Turf Classic will be the 3-year-old English Channel, who needs to sit back off the pace this time in order to use his quick turn of foot. It'll be interesting to see how he fares against older horses after his second to Gun Salute in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), in which he wound up battling on the front end.

In other Breeders' Cup news:

-- Following Society Selection's horrible trip in the Ruffian (gr. I), in which she was bottled up with no place to, look for the daughter of Coronado's Quest to be tough in the Beldame (gr. I), regardless of who she faces. Over a typical speed-favoring track, she finally slipped through along the rail and came flying, cutting the pacesetting Stellar Jayne's 5 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole to 1 1/2 lengths at the wire.

-- By missing Sunday's Prix Vermeille (Fra-I), Ouija Board, winner of last year's BC Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), is running out of time to find a race in Europe, and may have to come to America for her prep for this year's running.