07/22/2001 11:00PM

Elation turns into frustration


STANTON, Del. - As if anyone ever needs reminding, the unpredictability of horse racing is always around the bend, even in the kind of idyllic setting that Delaware Park presented last weekend.

Of course, odds-on favorites still come through on occasion, as Broken Vow and John's Call proved in stepping-stones toward Grade 1 races.

Broken Vow, headed to the Iselin and if all goes well the Breeders' Cup Classic, got the job done in the Carpenter Stakes on Saturday.

John's Call, headed to the Sword Dancer and if all goes well the Breeders' Cup Turf, attracted the most overt appreciation of the weekend as the subject of rousing applause following his workmanlike triumph in the Cape Henlopen on Sunday.

But the marquee events of the weekend, the Delaware Oaks and Delaware Handicap, did not follow a popularized script. Not even close. A $2 win parlay on Zonk ($38) and Irving's Baby ($61) would have returned nearly $1,200, a numeric illustration of what happens when so many are so wrong.

The Dave Vance camp was extremely confident that Caressing, the favorite in the Oaks, would redeem herself for a poor showing in the Mother Goose. She ran seventh with only minor excuses. Rick Porter and John Servis, buoyed by Zonk's upset the previous day, walked through the racetrack gates Sunday fully prepared to make history as the first owner and trainer to sweep Delaware's two showcase races. Then Jostle labored home fourth with absolutely no excuses.

"Something has to be wrong with the filly," a disappointed Porter said afterward. "But sometimes they just don't go forward the way you think."

Defeat was about the only negative the whole weekend, when Del Park officials rolled out the red carpet. Funded largely by the relentless jingle of ontrack slots, the spacious plant was spit-shined all week.

Well-heeled racegoers in and around the resplendent paddock reveled in the return to prosperous times, with towering trees serving as giant reminders that the classic beauty of Delaware Park long has been compared to Saratoga or Keeneland. No longer are people shaking their heads at dandelions on the turf or woeful animals on the dirt.


For the winners, victory merely added to what was already a pleasant day at the races. Porter, a Wilmington native, and Servis were tickled Saturday with Zonk's career-best race. Servis, a Charles Town, W. Va., native now based at Philadelphia Park, could not help but remember how far he has come from his days as a struggling trainer who made, he said, "more than a few" back-and-forth trips from Charles Town to Delaware pulling a two-horse trailer.

The next day, John Hassett had to feel something like the Lone Ranger, since he was the only representative for Irving's Baby. Owners Stuart and Anita Subotnick and trainer Todd Pletcher chose to stay home in New York, watching via simulcast. That left Hassett, a native of Ireland who has worked under Pletcher for three years, to enjoy the entire ontrack experience by himself.

"The question was always whether she could match up with the big ones," said Hassett, who oversaw the training of Irving's Baby in New York this winter, when he shipped her south to win three stakes at Laurel. "She answered that today. That's exciting."

Hassett said the next logical spot for Irving's Baby would be the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 24, primarily because the race is at 1 1/4 miles. "The farther the better for her, especially when she can go on and set her own pace like she did today," he said.

Discriminating horseplayers may view her Del Cap win with skepticism. Not only did Irving's Baby enjoy the prototypical "lone F" trip on a relaxed pace, but the final time of 2:05.21 was inordinately slow. Granted, the main track was dead all weekend. But Delaware has gained something of a reputation throughout the industry as the kind of track that horses either love or hate, and in recent weeks, horses racing on or near the lead in main-track races have dominated.


Equibase chart-caller Doug McCoy, only slightly exaggerating, said, "No horse has won with a looping trip here in a month."

Jockey Mike McCarthy said after his winning ride on Zonk that "you just can't get too far back on this track. I see it every day here. Fair or not, it's the way it plays. It's a peculiar track, unlike any I've ever seen."

Despite the odds, perhaps it is no coincidence that McCarthy, as a five-time defending champion at Delaware, and Ramon Dominguez, who rode Irving's Baby and established much of his still-growing reputation at Delaware, swept the weekend features. One thing was obvious: Some of the local fans were ecstatic about the results, especially the ones who clutched redeemable mutuel tickets and yelled things like, "That-a-boy, McCarthy! Keep that big money here at home!"

Yes, the winners were happy. At least that much is predictable about this game.