08/15/2008 4:29PM

Day 21: 8/15/08


2:15 pm: Drove past Belmont at 9:30 a.m., and the spires of Saratoga came into view precisely three hours later, though it took another 15 minutes to crawl the next two blocks up Union Avenue. If you're arriving by car, duck the 12:30-to-1 arrival zone.

So I missed the opener. a starter handicap for old warriors who have raced for a $14k tag any time since 1/1/2006. Casual ($7.30) hadn't run that cheaply since Scott Lake took him for $12,500 on 5/13/07. The 6-year-old Larrupin' gelding has now won 7 of 22 two starts since then and 12 of 62 overall. The field of eight came into the race with a combined career record of 59 for 333 with $1.95 million in earnings. They still make a few horses like they used to.

See that single tiny square of green in the chart above? Yes, we're having a grass race without fences today, the first since Banrock won the West Point six days ago. Today's other three lawn parties, however, have been moved to the dirt. The forecast is for "scattered" or "isolated" thunderstorms between 3 p.m. and midnight today, allegedly clearing out in time for tomorrow's five bravely-scheduled grass races.

Due to that silly law about not handicapping while you drive, I've got some qwik-capping to do. Back later.

6:15 pm: No thunderstorms yet, isolated or scattered or otherwise, and Saratoga could sure use a clear Saturday to right the business ship. Today's attendance and handle were down nearly 20 percent from last year, which is becoming a regular occurrence on these off-the-turf days. There's just not much left to bet on. Today's second through fifth races featured four heavy favorites in short fields, three of whom won to produce a whopping $63 for $2 early pick-4. The middle of the card consisted of four straight races at 5 or 5 1/2 furlongs, two of them off-the-turfers.

I played only a token late pick-4, a 2x2x5x2 caveman that included Asmussen firster Trinity Magic ($8.10) in the 6th, favorite Fancy Diamond ($5.10) in the 7th and overlaid Backseat Rhythm ($14.40) in the 9th off her strange pace-pressing effort against better in the American Oaks last time out. The Lake Placid was a very playable race and gave us a taste of what we've been missing with all the grass cancellations, but I neglected to get involved since my pick-4 was still going. Bad decision, as shaky favorite I Lost My Choo failed to fire and Backseat Rhythm topped a pretty haveable $1k tri and $4k super.

Backseat Rhythm, a 3-year-old El Corredor filly from the same Pompa/Reynolds connections that debuted Big Brown, suggested she might be something special on the grass when she won her turf debut last September over subsequent graded-stakes-winners Country Star and Mushka. She moved to dirt after that chasing G1 type and big purses, running creditably against Indian Blessing and Proud Spell. She was only 1 for 3 back on grass this year, but one was her seasonal debut and the other was her unexpected chasing of Raw Silk's hot pace in the Oaks.

Today she returned to her one-run tactics and was much the best, stumbling and falling back early and then blowing away the field with a six-wide move to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Rosa Grace, a British import, was up for second at 12-1, with Raw Silk fading to third after opening a two-length lead at the furlong pole.

The final time for the race was 1:50.69, nearly five full seconds faster than Latitude Forty's Yaddo victory over the same course and distance last Saturday, raising the question of whether the course might have been used since then.

Backseat Rhythm's victory left me alive to only two in the finale, favorites Take the Points and Toby The Coal Man, and while the record will show that they ran 2nd and 3rd in that order with Tar Beach beating Take the Points by just a neck, this was the antithesis of a tough beat. Tar Beach was a ton the best, repeatedly steadied while boxed in and eventually jerked outside for running room. Tar Beach ($12.60) completed a $1598 pick-4, and a $5776 pick-six cashed by 5 on-track and 6 off-track winners.

Enough with the traveling. I'm back to stay through the Travers, will immerse myself in the Alabama card tonight, and promise to be full of opinions by 10:45 tomorrow morning at Siro's.