Zabenz Takes New York Writers Cup Steeplechase

New Zealend-bred Zabenz, making his second start in the United States, took command of the $100,000 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase Handicap (NSA-gr. I) in the final turn and pulled away for a 7 1/4-length victory in rainy conditions Thursday at Saratoga.

The winning time for the 2 3/8 miles on a soft turf was 4:28.

Michael Watt's 5-year-old gelded son of Zabeel was fitted for blinkers for the first time by trainer Robert Smerdon.

"This horse was sold out of Australia to an owner (Watts) in England," said Smerdon, who won his first New York Turf Writers Cup. "It was his idea to bring him here. I think Australia and America are very comparable. Jumping here is struggling for survival, and it is in Australia. It doesn't get the recognition it gets in England and Ireland."

Ridden by Craig Thornton, Zabenz, carrying 146 pounds, rated in second behind the pacesetting Al Skywalker most of the way before Al Skywalker was pulled out of the race before the final turn.

Zabenz inherited the lead from Al Skywalker and pulled away for his fourth career win in hurdles from five starts. The $60,00 first-place purse pushed his career earnings to $170,000. Double Leaf closed for second, edging Flat Top.

It's a Giggle, the 6-5 favorite who was carrying 160 pounds, did not finish. He won the race last year for trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

"As soon as the man said, `Go!,' we were in trouble," said Sheppard. "It (the soft course condition) was exactly what we were afraid of; it happened in the Breeders' Cup last year. It's a little bit hard to scratch when you have the favorite in a $100,000 race. He was like swimming. He couldn't get a hold of it. He's a long-striding horse, and he was never even on the bit. He came up to the race great, we just got beat by the weather. You can't take anything away from he winner. That was a great performance."

Sheppard also trained Double Leaf.

Zabenz was coming off of a dull third-place finish in a 2 1/16-mile allowance at Saratoga Aug. 22.

Smerdon said it was Thornton's idea to try blinkers.

"Last time, he was fiddling around," Thornton said. "Today, he was on his game. The blinkers definitely helped. He's a serious horse. We were disappointed with him last week, but the blinkers obviously got him back on his game. The ground didn't bother him at all."

Smerdon added, "When you are down at the bottom of the handicaps, I thought we would be competitive purely on the weights. I was happy to see it rain, but when it kept raining, we got into an area of unknown. This will be the worse ground he's ever experienced. "

The winner paid $10.80, $6.10 and $4.80. Double Leaf returned $14.80 and $8.40. Flat Top paid $7.30 for the show. The $2 exacta was $149.

(Chart, Equibase)