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Submitted by John Piesen on Friday, July 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM

COUNTING DOWN

By John Piesen

I fully expect that Joel Rosario, the poor man’s Matt Harvey, will be the star of the Saratoga meeting, which opens next Friday. Just as the New York media fawn over Harvey, and the British media fawn over the royal baby, the Albany-area media will be 24/7 Rosario, who warmed up for the Spa this year by winning the Dubai World Cup on Animal Kingdom, and the Kentucky Derby on Orb.

Owner Irwin thanked Rosario by replacing him with Johnny V for AK’s next (and final) race, the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, and AK checked in 10th, beaten
20 lengths.

That will be the exception, not the rule. You already see the top-rung trainers, up to and including Todd Pletcher, going to Rosario, and it’s obvious that JR will virtually have his pick at the litter at the Spa, much as jockeys Cordero and Bailey did when they were dominating upstate in years back.

A precursor is this Saturday, Rosario rides eight at Belmont Park, capped by Optimizer for D. Wayne in the Man o’ War, then hop a plane to ride Charming Kitten for the Toddster in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, traffic and weather permitting. Then, of course, he’ll be back Sunday to ride the full card on closing day at Belmont.

Then, following a four-day break, they will be off and running next Friday at Saratoga, and let the party really begin for JR.

Rosario will be on Orb, Gary Stevens on Oxbow, and Mike Smith on Palace Malice when those three square off in the Travers, which will be the defining race of the Saratoga meet. If the Big Three make it, it will be the first time the three winners of the TC races will clash since 1982, when Derby winner Gato del Sol, Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler and Belmont victor Conquistador Cielo squared off.

The jockeys of those Big Three are very much alive, but, sad to say, the trainers are long gone.

Historians and even some of us will recall as if it were yesterday as a gray horse named Runaway Groom blew the stars away under Jeff Fell, a race which makes every one’s Saratoga Top Ten.

Nobody had ever heard of Runaway Groom before the race. In fact, although he was owned by local people, he was stabled in a barn so far back in the boonies, you would have needed GPS to find him the week of the race.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if history repeats this year.

While the 2013 Travers will be billed as a rematch of the three TC winners, don’t be surprised if Normandy Invasion pulls a Runaway Groom on them.

But first things first, and that’s the opening-day Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies. Five years back, I nailed the $21 winner of the race and won for $14.00 last opening day for my readers online, and the callers to the John Piesen Hot Line (1-888-612-2283).

I doubt I’ll nail a $21 winner in the Schuylerville this time. After all, you know that Pletcher will have a 3-5 killer in there, but I am confident of having another successful Spa meet. Click here to join me for all the winning action this summer at Saratoga

Surely we will get the same seven or eight claiming races a day, as we had at Belmont, but at least the fields will be larger, and the chances of hitting
respectably-sized exotics will be greater.

Some folks think that David Jacobson, who broke all records at Belmont, will bounce at the Spa. I ’ll go the other way. No one in this era plays the claiming game better than Jacobson, and since the Spa, unlike previous years, is all about claiming races, DJ will have mucho opportunities to keep his run going. 

As for the Toddster, he gave us a preview of his Saratoga on Thursday in the second race at Belmont.

Sent off at 1-9, a Pioneerofthenile firster named Ari the Adventurer won by a pole in 1:03 for the five and a half furlongs. Needless to say, Johnny V, flying Rachel Alexandra’s colors, never drew the stick. Shame there is no New York media left to cover the race, and you would be hard-pressed to find a chart.

But the scary thing is how many Aris are there in he Pletcher barn? Hell, by the end of Saratoga, Ari may be fourth or fifth in the Pletcher pecking order. The man will be odds-in in virtually every 2-year-old race, and no doubt he’ll win most of them.

It’s obvious why talented out-of-state riders no longer bother come to Saratoga. With Johnny V, Castellano, and now Rosario, riding everything for Pletcher, the little guy doesn’t have a chance.

An example is jockey Santana, who dominated a tough meet at Oaklawn.

"What’s the point of going up there, and go six-for-100?," says agent Munoz. "I’m better off staying here at Ellis Park and Indiana Downs, and wait for Keeneland."

What’s more, Pletcher has the best older horses on the grounds in Cross Traffic and Graydar, and Palace Malice and Verrazano among the top 3-year-olds. And no doubt TP will find a way to win many of those high-claimers.

I ask myself every year: In the wake of downward trends across the land, when is the Saratoga bubble going to burst?

Not this year. Not when there’s so much for folks of all ages to do, not when Saratoga Lake and nearby Lake George are still going strong, not as long as there is a Performing Arts Show and a Peerless Pool, and not as long as they continue to have great restaurants, some of them even affordable.

Of course, the Spa is not for the faint of heart. I understand the bed and breakfasts are asking $200 a day --  and getting it. Good luck in getting a place. And forget about the parking.

As long as there’s a Saratoga playground, there will be Saratoga racing...and on-track crowds 10 and 20 times what they get downstate.

For me, the off-the-track highlight of the Spa meet will be Fourstardave Bobblehead Day.

I’m not a bobblehead kind of guy, but this is history.

"This is the first time," Rich Bomze, who owned Fourstardave in those glorious ’90s when Dave won at least one race at the Spa for seven straight years, tells me. "Dave is the first horse to be honored with a bobblehead. Funny Cide wasn’t. Not even Secretariat."

Health issues prevent Bomze from attending the festivities, but he’ll have family there.

Fourstardave is buried in the Spa backstretch, right off Union Avenue, not far from Fourstardave Way, a magical Spa landmark marked by historic watering holes.

Del Mar this year widens its fabled grass course from 65 to 80 feet so maybe that will help the closers. We’ll see.

The horse I’m looking forward to seeing at Del Mar is the 2-year-old Kobe’s Back, named for you-know-who. The gray looked awfully good coming from the clouds to win first pop at Hollywood Park. Is he the real thing or a one-time wonder? Looking forward to finding out.

Also looking forward to finding out how trainer Tom fares at Saratoga. Amoss, a 30 per cent trainer at every stop, as well as the younger brother of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is bringing nine to the Spa, headed by Mylute, Delaunay and So Many Ways.

Mylute managed to survive his Triple Crown campaign unscathed, and may be a second-half sleeper in the 3-year-old division. He will go next in the Jim Dandy, or possibly ship to Monmouth to face Oxbow and Verrazano in the Haskell Whereever he goes, Rosie goes with him.

Delaunay won six straight before an early stumble cost him a seventh in the Iowa Sprint Handicap.

So Many Ways found two turns one too many in the Iowa Oaks. Last year. she won the Schuylerville, a $14 special on the JP Hot Line, and the Spinaway.

Maggie Moss, the nation’s premier female owner, owns Delaunay and So Many Ways, and, regretfully has turned down munificent offers for both horses. 

As for the final Saturday at Belmont, the Man O’ War, a 600K Grade One at 11 furlongs on the grass, offers further proof that friends one day are enemies the next.

Rosario, who won the Derby for trainer McGaughey on Orb, will try to beat the Shugster on Optimizer, who will take some catching, what with the rail and a four-pound pull in the weights.

Johnny V will ride the favored Boisterous for the Shug Man, and Castellano, the third member of the New York Big Three. will pilot Twilight Eclipse, who wants firm going. 

Finnegans Wake and Al Khali are sleepers in the nine-horse field.

The first running of the 100K Solar Splendor Stakes goes an hour earlier, begging the question: why is there a Solar Splendor Stakes...and no Skip Away Stakes on the New York calendar?

Thanks for tuning in. Click here to join me this weekend to build bankroll for Saratoga, go Bucs, and see you back here next Friday.

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