07/15/2009 11:00PM

Equally good wherever he runs


Despite its best efforts to thin the ranks with injuries and render the rest of the season trivial, the 3-year-old division is still lashing out for attention, sending representatives in every possible direction, over a variety of surfaces.

On Saturday, in California, Nick Alexander's quick Benchmark colt Grazen will try to win his fourth straight in the $250,000 Swaps Stakes, at nine furlongs on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track. Advice and Conservative, the one-two finishers in last spring's Lexington Stakes, have come in from the East to challenge, but Grazen appears to be in a salty groove, with victories at Hollywood in April, May, and June, each one more impressive than the last.

Earlier on Saturday afternoon, Colonial Downs is offering the $750,000 Virginia Derby at 1 1/4 miles on the grass. This is not to be confused with the $750,000 West Virginia Derby, which will be run at Mountaineer Racetrack two weeks later, on Aug. 1. The slots-fueled West Virginia Derby, at 1 1/8 miles on the main track, is getting the celebrity, since Mine That Bird is expected to run. On the other hand, fans of an old-fashioned racing rumble should love the Virginia Derby, which includes just about every young turf horse of consequence.

As these competing derbies go, the Virginia version should come first, since Virginia was the 10th state to join the fledgling United States of America, in 1788, while brandishing the motto "sic semper tyrannis," which, loosely translated from the Latin, means "up yours King George." By 1860, this was modified to read "and Abe Lincoln, too," resulting in Virginia's temporary secession from the Union. The region known as West Virginia then seceded from Virginia and attached itself in 1863 to the good ol' USA, which had lost seven states to the Confederacy and needed all the help it could get. Since then, neither of the Virginias has seceded from anything, although both would love to be part of the NFL.

It is into this cauldron of American history that California's Mike House is sending his British gelding Battle of Hastings once more into the breach. Battle of Hastings narrowly won the Colonial Turf Cup at Colonial Downs on June 23, with a flawless trip under Tyler Baze, against several of the runners he will face again on Saturday. Such capable new shooters as Nicanor, Hold Me Back, and Affirmatif render the race a scramble.

House bought Battle of Hastings last year, turned him over to Jeff Mullins, and ran him right off the boat in the Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park. That didn't work so well, but after a few months of acclimation, the son of Royal Applause has turned into California's most consistent turf 3-year-old, with three stakes wins and a close second in the American Turf at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day.

"He's just a good shipper," House said Thursday after stepping off a plane in Washington, D.C., and being immediately embraced by the moist warmth of an East Coast summer afternoon. "He doesn't seem to care where he's at. He seems to give it his best shot every time."

House has been at the game for a while and has had a certain amount of success with European imports. The French filly Slip With Me won minor stakes at Turf Paradise and Fairplex Park in the early 1990s, and Cayoke was a fast French horse who won stakes at Santa Anita and Del Mar a few years back with Mullins. The $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup, though, was the biggest race House has ever won.

"It took him a few months, but once he got used to things over here he shaped up," House said of Battle of Hastings. "I've never had much luck running them right off the plane."

At 71, House is still very much a hands-on horseman himself. A little too hands-on, in fact, if the events of earlier this year at his San Diego area ranch are any indication. Let's hear his version.

"I had a young colt and was kind of schooling him," House began. "I separated him from this mare my wife was on. I wanted to take him out and teach him to do a few things by himself. When I got him a little ways out there, she whinnied, and he kind of lost it."

House remained firmly attached, at least for a while.

"I rodeoed him back to the last hill behind our house," he went on. "He was just out of his mind. So I dove off into a bush . . . and missed the bush."

House suffered the cowboy indignity of being helicoptered out of rough terrain, but he had a right.

"I broke about eight ribs and my shoulder blade," he said. "But I'm fine now, although I'm leaving the schooling of those colts to the young guys. As they were loading me on that helicopter, I was pretty doped up. But I did hear my wife in the background say, 'For chrissakes, Mike, you're 70 years old.' "

It wasn't exactly what House needed to hear just then, but she had a point. Age 70 is definitely too old to fall, but not necessarily too old to ride, and definitely not too old to win a race like the Virginia Derby.