Rachel set for Personal Ensign at Saratoga

Jess Jackson, co-owner of reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, confirmed Friday what was expected: the 4-year-old Medaglia d’Oro filly will make her fifth start of the year in the $300,000 Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 29.

Even though it will be her fifth start, it will be her first try in a Grade 1 race in 2010 after winning the ungraded Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park in her last start and the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs. She finished second in her first two starts of the year.

“”Rachel feels very much at home among the great Saratoga fans,” Jackson said in a statement. “It’s an historic race, named after a great champion. The timing is right for Rachel. She’s been coming back into her stride and this will help her prepare for the rest
of her campaign and the Breeders’ Cup later this year.”

The Personal Ensign will be Rachel Alexandra’s first try at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles and she’s expected to face a top distaffer in the Todd Pletcher-trained Life at Ten. Her victory in the Preakness, a 1 3/16-mile event, has been the longest of her career.

“The whole team is excited to have Rachel back at Saratoga preparing for this Grade 1 race,” trainer Steve Asmussen said in a statement. “We all love the track and the fans at Saratoga, perhaps none more than Rachel herself.”

On the same day Jackson made his announcement, the unbeaten Zenyatta, who’s won a North American-record 17 consecutive races, worked six furlongs at Hollywood Park in 1:13.60 over the synthetic Cushion Track.

Trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss have made no announcement about the 6-year-old Street Cry mare’s next start, but it’s expected to come next Saturday in the $300,000 Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar, a race Zenyatta would be attempting to win for an unprecedented third consective year.

There had been speculation that Shirreffs’ disdain for Del Mar’s Polytrack surface might lead the Zenyatta camp to send her back to the Personal Ensign and a showdown against Rachel Alexandra, but Shirreffs has nixed that idea.

Shirreffs told The Daily Racing Form that the $350,000 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 2 is a possibility for Zenyatta. He said he wants to run her twice more before the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 5-6. Zenyatta has won three races this year after her unprecedented victory in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

If these two great distaffers are to ever meet, it appears it will come in the Breeders’ Cup, although I don’t believe Rachel Alexandra will race in the Classic unless she shows she’s back to where she was in 2009. She’s yet to display that brilliance in any of her four starts in 2010. If she can beat Life at Ten, who won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps earlier this year and has won six consecutive races, she’ll be back.

Cassidy, P-Val and this and that at Del Mar

One thing’s for certain — there was nothing ho-hum about the opening week of Del Mar’s 71st racing season. There were more twists and turns and peaks and valleys than that thrilling roller-coaster ride at your favorite amusement park.

Let’s see:

* Veteran trainer James Cassidy got off to the best start of his career at the seaside track, saddling The Usual Q.T. for a victory in Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes and then coming back Sunday to win the $150,000 Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap with Evening Jewel. It was Cassidy’s third victory in the San Clemente and first in the Eddie Read. Cassidy also won an earlier race on the Eddie Read card, making it the first time in the 64-year-old trainer’s career that he won two races in one day at Del Mar.

* Get ready for the return of veteran jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who’s 47 now but as eager as ever to return to the Southern California circuit. The California Horse Racing Board, behind closed doors, decided Thursday to grant Valenzuela a conditional license to begin riding again in California after the board banned him for life just two years ago. Sources tell me the Del Mar stewards were not thrilled about the ruling, but like it or not P-Val will be back riding Wednesday. He’s named to ride one horse, Warrensmysterydice for trainer Jorge Gutierrez, on his first day back in the sixth race. He’s scheduled to ride in three races both Thursday and Friday, including horses for trainers like John Sadler, Doug O’Neill and Steve Knapp.

* For the second consecutive summer, jockey Tyler Baze was injured in a pre-race accident. Last August, the 27-year-old Baze fractured the little finger on his left hand when he was unseated as the horses approached the starting gate. This year, behind the starting gate, Baze’s mount in Saturday’s fifth race, Night Justice, reared up and threw his head back into the rider’s face, unseating him. The horse then stepped on Baze’s calf when he was on the ground. Vic Stauffer, Baze’s agent, said Sunday the jockey suffered several orbital fractures around his right eye and a broken nose. He’s tentatively scheduled to miss between three to eight weeks, depending on whether surgery is needed.

* Despite the fact training had to be canceled Thursday morning because of inconsistencies in the Polytrack surface through the stretch, Del Mar enjoyed a clean week of racing over its main track. There were no fatalities through the first five days of the 37-day meet, compared to four last year over the main track during the opening week. Amina, trained by Mike Mitchell, suffered a suspensory injury during the running of Thursday’s third race on the turf and had to be vanned off, but Mitchell reported later that it appears the injury is not life-threatening. There was one fatal breakdown on the turf during opening week in 2009.

* Buoyed by a record opening-day crowd of 45,309 and two huge pick-six carryovers, Del Mar’s on-track attendance showed a 2.21 percent hike through the first five days compared to last summer. But the good news stopped there for track officials as on-track handle dipped 9.31 percent and overall handle slid 9.24 percent. There were two less races during opening week this year compared to the first five days of 2009. The attendance and handle figures point out that horse racing has not lost its appeal for many fans but they just don’t have the extra money to bet because of the economy.

* Finally, the circus, err MI Developments, returned to town Thursday when the CHRB held its monthly meeting at Del Mar and hoped to hear about the company’s vision for its two race tracks — Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. MID’s chairman, Frank Stronach, and its CEO, Dennis Mills, were not present, but they sent Santa Anita president George Haines, Golden Gate executive Robert Hartman, and corporate attorneys Frank Demarco and Scott Daruty to tell the board members they didn’t have a specific plan because they wanted assurances that any “trade secrets” they had in their plan would not be disclosed publicly. Trade secrets? If Stronach has any trade secrets, he should have come public with them years ago before the California racing industry hit a serious decline. Magna’s games are getting old … really, really old.

Acclamation can wire ’em in Eddie Read

If the trip to New Jersey for the United Nations Handicap at Monmouth Park on July 3 didn’t take too much out of him, I like Acclamation to win today’s $300,000 Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar.

The 4-year-old son of Unusual Heat is 1 for 3 over the Del Mar turf and, before his ninth-place effort in the United Nations, had wired the field in both the Grade 2 Jim Murray Handicap and Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Enriched and The Usual Q.T. figure to be sitting right behind Acclamation. If Acclamation goes too slow, Enriched might even gun for the lead, which would set it up nicely for The Usual Q.T. and the classy Loup Breton, a 6-year-old Irish-bred who lost by only a neck while finishing third in the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on May 1.

I’ll go with Acclamation, Loup Breton and The Usual Q.T. as my 1-2-3 selections.

Rachel Alexandra gets a pass despite soft campaign

Hmmmm, I think I smell a double standard here.

Through much of last season and all of 2010, I’ve heard cries from the East about Zenyatta’s “hand-picked” schedule against “the same old tired fillies and mares.”

I’ve heard and read the criticism despite the fact that she’s raced in seven consecutive Grade 1 races and beaten all-comers, becoming the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall when she blew past double Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti in the stretch.

I’ve listened to the protests despite the fact she just beat a very good mare in St Trinians and spotted her nine pounds while carrying 129 herself. St Trinians, by the way, had beaten 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic champion Life Is Sweet in her previous race.

But it’s funny and quite amusing how I hear no cries of dismay from the East today as Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, attempts to beat six nondescript rivals in the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park — a race that is not even graded.

In fact, Rachel will race for the fourth time this year today and two of those four starts have come in non-graded stakes. The other two were Grade 2s. When was the last time the reigning Horse of the Year had such an easy schedule?

I hope she wins by 20 today, but how can she get away with facing a field that includes only one other filly that is even graded-stakes placed? None of her six rivals today have won a graded stakes.

Where is the outrage, the cries of protest over such an easy campaign from the same folks who have lambasted Zenyatta in the past?

Double standard? The silence from the East is deafening.

Another debut winner for Baffert

The winner of the 2010 Del Mar Futurity this summer might have won Sunday’s seventh race at Hollywood Park. His name is Smash, a $400,000 yearling purchase by Smart Strike, and he gave Baffert his seventh victory in 15 races this meet with first-time starters.

Smash was ridden by Baffert’s No. 1 guy, Martin Garcia, who had the colt just off the pace behind the pace-setting Doughboy and then took command in the stretch to cover the five furlongs on Cushion Track in 57.83 seconds as the 1-2 favorite.

Baffert’s stable is loaded right now, not only with all the good young horses he has but also with contenders for some of the big races coming up at the Del Mar Meet and then later in the year.

He has Richard’s Kid, third in the Hollywood Gold Cup, for the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic; E Z’s Gentleman for the Pat O’Brien and Bing Crosby sprints; and later in the year, after the 3-year-old classics are finished, Lookin At Lucky for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Yes, it’s good to be Bob Baffert right now.

Steinbrenner had soft side beneath tough exterior

George Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at 80 because of a heart attack, was best known as owner of the New York Yankees. After purchasing the team in 1973 when it was down and had not been to a World Series in nine years, Steinbrenner’s Yankees won seven world championships, 11 American League pennants and had the best winning percentage (.566) in the majors during his tenure.

But Steinbrenner also was a prominent horse owner and breeder, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into his later years. Some of his most prominent horses included Steve’s Friend, who won the 1977 Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park; Bellamy Road, who won the Wood Memorial by a record 17 1/2 lengths in 2005 only to finish a disappointing seventh in the Kentucky Derby as the 5-2 favorite; and Majestic Warrior, winner of the 2007 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga as a 2-year-old who injured his hoof in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park later that fall and was never the same horse.

In listening to radio personalities talk about his legacy this week, a couple of interesting stories surfaced that belied the man’s crusty demeanor, which often shined through when the Yankees were struggling through a rough patch.

According to reports:

* While sitting in the owner’s suite one night during a Yankees game, Steinbrenner watched a young child get hit in the arm by a foul ball. He told one of his employees to go get the child and his parents, brought them into his suite and proceeded to write out a $30,000 check to cover the child’s college tuition.

* Seems George had a fondness for sandwiches while watching Yankees games, but he didn’t like mayonnaise. However, the more he would request his sandwiches with no mayo, the woman who prepared the sandwiches in the media dining room would continue to lather it with mayonnaise. Well, one night he’d finally had it and fired her. Told the next day by the woman’s co-worker that she only worked there to pay her child’s college tuition, Steinbrenner proceeded to pay for the remainder of that tuition.

* In a story that received prominent play on Yahoo!, Steinbrenner paid for a young girl’s brain surgery that possibily saved her life after she was injured in an accident on the day the Yankees played the Dodgers in game 2 of the 1977 World Series. The woman has three children today and the whole family roots for the Yankees.

In all three instances, Steinbrenner requested that the financial aid be kept confidential. He did not want the publicity surrounding his generosity. He would have preferred that his acts of kindness never got out.

I’ve never been a Yankees fan. Never will be. But it’s obvious that beneath his sometimes childish behavior caused by an incessant desire to win was a man who deeply cared about people and wanted to help others because he could.

In the grand scheme of things, isn’t that what really counts?

Leftovers from the Hollywood Gold Cup

Ron Ellis was left scratching his head following Saturday’s $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. He could not understand why Rail Trip, the 2-5 favorite, was four-wide much of the way and sitting third and fourth through the early stages of the race while Compari set extremely soft fractions of 25.82, 50.95 and 1:15.12 after the other speed in the race, Tres Borrachos, broke in the air at the start to compromise his chances.

“It was a rough trip,” Ellis said. “It just didn’t work out today. He was wide, (and) I don’t know why. I don’t know what it was. You would have to ask (jockey Rafael Bejarano).”

Meanwhile, winning trainer Craig Dollase was basking in the afterglow of his first Gold Cup score after a pair of bitter disappointments in 2001 when Futural was DQ’d and the following year when Momentum lost by a nose to Sky Jack.

Dollase said he had a feeling Saturday would be Awesome Gem’s day after the way the 7-year-old gelding worked during his two drills before the Gold Cup. He worked six furlongs in 1:11 4/5 and five furlongs in 59 4/5.

“I was very confident because Awesome Gem is not a very good work horse, but the last two works he’s really been on edge,” Dollase said. “The timing worked out great. We gave him a little reprieve a couple of races back and we mapped this out. We had visions of maybe going to another race, but we just stuck to the plan. We got a little break in the weights and it all worked out.”

Rail Trip, who’s been first or second in 11 of his 12 career races, spotted the winner seven pounds and it was enough to help Awesome Gem post his first Grade 1 victory in 13 tries.

Next up for the son of Awesome Again might be the Pacific Classic at Del Mar this summer, followed by his fourth Breeders’ Cup. He’s run in two Breeders’ Cup Classics and one Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Jeff Bloom, vice president of West Coast operations for West Point Thoroughbreds, agreed in the Gold Cup winner’s circle that the Pacific Classic is a reasonable next step.

“Obviously that would be what’s foremost in our minds at this point, but we’ll see how he comes out of it,” Bloom said. “Timing wise it gives him a little bit of a breather so I’ll get together with Craig, we’ll sit down and make sure that’s the right place to come back into. Definitely at this point, I would say that’s a logical next step for him.”

Awesome Gem already showed he likes Del Mar’s synthetic Polytrack by finishing a close second to Student Council in the 2007 running of the Pacific Classic. He finished seventh in the race the past two summers, but Dollase feels he’s a different horse now.

“He’s like fine wine,” the veteran trainer said. “This horse is just getting better. He’s really in his prime right now.”

Small, but interesting Hollywood Gold Cup field

Yes, Rail Trip looks like he’ll be tough to beat in Saturday’s $500,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park, but it’s really a quality field, especially when you consider that horses like Cigar (1995) and Skip Away (1998) don’t ship in anymore because of the synthetic tracks.

Rail Trip will carry top weight of 123 pounds, but that should not stop him from joining Native Diver (1965-67) and Lava Man (2005-07) as the only multiple winners of the historic race that has seen many great champions find the winner’s circle.

On paper, the biggest threat would appear to be the Bob Baffert-trained Richard’s Kid, who came from the clouds to win last summer’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar and who figures to get a realistic pace to run at Saturday, what with speedsters like Tres Borrachos and Compari in the field of seven.

And don’t count out Awesome Gem, a 7-year-old gelding who keeps knocking on the door but just can’t seem to kick it in for that elusive first Grade 1 victory. Trainer Craig Dollase told me a short respite earlier in the year seems to have re-energized the son of Awesome Again, who has more than $1.9 million in career earnings.

Awesome Gem will be ridden again by David Flores and he comes in off a second-place showing in the Lone Star Park Handicap in Texas on Memorial Day. He won the Grade 3 Hawthorne Gold Cup last fall and finished second in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes on turf at Del Mar last summer.

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