07/22/2011 4:28PM

Emerald Downs regular Belvoir off to great start at Del Mar

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AUBURN, Wash. – For a dizzying 24 hours at least, Vann Belvoir sat atop the trainer standings – at Del Mar of all places. A man who makes his living saddling horses at Emerald Downs sent out longshot winner Mentidoso on opening day at Southern California’s marquee meeting Wednesday, and then won with Emerald shipper Certified Diamond on Thursday. Naturally, Belvoir was loving every minute of it.

“It’s just amazing to compete down here,” he said when reached Thursday evening as he and his wife Sauci waited for their dinner reservation at a restaurant close to Del Mar. And then Bob Baffert walked by. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

“It’s pretty cool to be here,” Belvoir said. “Beautiful weather, beautiful track. We were able to get some works into these horses and I think it’s paid off. It’s the greatest thing ever, just to turn for home and see your horse has a chance.”

Belvoir, who has a large string at Emerald and was fourth in the standings with 23 victories heading into the weekend, took 16 horses to Del Mar. He was lured in part by a new “Ship and Win” incentive program that pays bonuses to owners from outside California. They get $1,000 just for running and another 20 percent on top of the listed purse if their horse finishes in the top five in its first Del Mar start.

Certified Diamond took an $8,000 claimer with a $20,000 purse. His owner, Walter Thompson, received $1,000 to run him, $12,000 for winning the race, and an additional bonus of $2,400. All told, a $15,400 payday for capturing a bottom-level claimer.

“I always thought he’d like the turf and the synthetic, he’s got the action for it,” Belvoir said of Certified Diamond. “He’ll run a mile, he’ll run short. Last time at Emerald he reared and lost his best chance, and before that he ran second to Who’s Your Next Ex, who got an easy lead. He worked real well over the track. I thought they’d claim him.”

Mentidoso wasn’t eligible for the “Ship and Win” incentives because he made his most recent start at Golden Gate, but his victory in a $25,000 claimer created a hefty payday for Belvoir, who received $17,900 for winning, and another $25,000 when the horse was claimed by trainer Jack Carava. At the end of the day, Belvoir had pocketed $42,900. If he wagered on Mentidoso, so much the better – the horse, confidently handled by Chantal Sutherland, paid $38.40 and triggered a $10,307 superfecta.

Belvoir purchased Mentidoso for $2,000 at a yearling sale in California in 2009. He made his first start Feb. 13 at Golden Gate. He won a maiden special weight on March 1 and had been highly competitive in first-level allowance races before heading south. Turns out the betting public wasn’t impressed; Mentidoso went off at 18-1, the second-longest price on the board. Belvoir expected as much.

“We’re probably not going to be respected that much coming from out of state, and coming from up north,” he said. “Going in, on numbers, he wasn’t the best horse, but the way the track was playing, we thought we had a pretty good chance. The inside speed was dying, so we decided to wheel around ‘em and make one run. She rode a beautiful race. And then Certified Diamond won going away. It was two beautiful races.”

Belvoir hopes to stick around for a while. He tried to claim three horses on opening day but drew the short straw on two. At the same time, he lost both Mentidoso and Giuseppe G, a 3-year-old who had finished second in his previous start at Emerald Downs.

“I’m going to have a string here the whole meet,” Belvoir said. “If I could get lucky enough to pick up a few owners – you never know, but hopefully they’re looking for a new face who will try for them – then maybe I’ll stay down south. This is the future.”

In the meantime, Belvoir, his wife, and their two young children are soaking up the California sun and riding a wave of excitement that only racing at its highest levels can provide.

“We looked like the people in that movie Casey’s Shadow,” Belvoir said. “That’s what we are. We’re just having a ball.”

Longacres Mile short on prospects

The list of probable starters in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile on Aug. 21 is a relatively short one. Only a handful of local horses figure to challenge defending champion Noosa Beach, who goes into Sunday’s Mount Rainier Handicap having won six consecutive stakes races.

The field could swell over the next couple of weeks as horsemen in California, Canada, and elsewhere weigh their options. Two horses stabled at Hastings in Vancouver, British Columbia – Crew Leader and St Liams Halo, who finished noses apart in the $50,000 S.W. Randall Plate last Sunday – are expected to compete in the Mile, as is Slew the Man, who won the Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton in his last start.

Vince Bruun, director of media relations at Emerald Downs, will make a trip to Del Mar in early August to spread the word about the Northwest’s only graded race, which carriers a $200,000 purse. But with the race only four weeks out, the Mile could feature its smallest field since 1997, when Kid Katabatic led all the way in a seven-horse field.