04/23/2008 11:00PM

Grasshopper cutting back to mile in Westchester


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Though most of his success has come in two-turn races, Grasshopper will cut back to a one-turn mile when he ships here from Kentucky for Wednesday's Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Handicap, the opening day feature at Belmont Park.

Grasshopper, trained by Neil Howard, first gained notoriety when he came within a half-length of Street Sense in last summer's 1 1/4-mile Travers at Saratoga. Thereafter, he finished second in the Super Derby at nine furlongs, won the Mineshaft at 1 1/16 miles, and was beaten a neck in the New Orleans Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

In the Travers and in the New Orleans Handicap, Grasshopper set the pace. Howard and owner Will Farish liked the turn of foot Grasshopper showed when he came from off the pace in the Mineshaft, a race he won by 2 1/2 lengths.

"He has shown a nice turn of foot when he gets the chance to stalk the pace," Howard said Thursday from Louisville. "We feel we saw that side of him a time or two and we want to see if what we're seeing is true to form."

In a one-turn mile race like the Westchester, there is usually a pretty solid early pace.

Howard said that should Grasshopper perform well in the Westchester, it could earn him a spot in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont on May 26. Howard believes Grasshopper's pedigree - he's a son of Dixie Union out of the Mr. Prospector mare Grass Skirt - suggests that a mile would be a good distance for him.

Howard said Grasshopper was due to breeze at Churchill on Friday and was to ship to New York on Saturday. Robby Albarado, who has ridden Grasshopper in 7 of his 9 starts, will be here for the ride.

A decent field is shaping up for the Westchester, including Divine Park, King of the Roxy, Miners Lamp, and Sightseeing. Possible starters include Executive Fleet and Port Royal.

On Thursday, King of the Roxy worked four furlongs in 49.65 seconds over Belmont's training track.

Doc N Roll ends Sackatoga drought

Doc N Roll did more than win his maiden when he captured the fourth race at Aqueduct on Wednesday.

The 3-year-old colt ended a lengthy losing streak for the Sackatoga Stable stretching back to Funny Cide's farewell victory last July 4 in the Wadsworth Memorial at Finger Lakes.

"We've had a lot of seconditis since then," said managing partner Jack Knowlton. "We had been knocking on the door and we finally broke through."

Sackatoga had been winless in 12 races since Funny Cide departed, picking up four seconds along the way.

Funny Cide was the horse of a lifetime for Sackatoga, a group of long-time pals from upstate New York who pooled their resources and magically came up with the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.

"It's obviously been very different since then, when you have a horse of that caliber," Knowlton said. "Winning that last race at Finger Lakes was tremendously exciting. Now it's kind of geared down."

While Funny Cide enjoys his retirement, Sackatoga has evolved into a corporate entity forming racing partnerships. The days of a fun-loving bunch of buddies riding a yellow school bus to the races have given way to PowerPoint presentations and investor conferences.

"We've now taken it to a different level," Knowlton said of the venture that has expanded to 55 owners invested in three limited-liability corporations.

Sackatoga currently has seven horses, including a trio of 2-year-olds who have yet to race. In keeping with the Funny Cide tradition, all are New York-breds trained by Barclay Tagg.

"It's kind of exciting," Knowlton said. "We're going to have a lot of horses running and a lot of action. Everyone was pretty excited when Doc N Roll won."

Knowlton saw the expansion as inevitable. "I really enjoy this game and want to continue to play it,"he said. "Despite Funny Cide's success, I'm not in the category where I can go out and buy my own horses. I knew that the old partners from Sackets Harbor were not going to have the means or the interest to go on with it, and that was clearly what I wanted to do.

"I'd be happy if we can build ourselves up to a dozen to 15, maybe 20 horses at some point."

Thomas new Pletcher assistant

After he saddles three horses for him on Saturday, Seth Benzel will leave trainer Todd Pletcher's employ and get ready to embark on his own training career. He will be replaced by Jonathan Thomas, a former assistant to Christophe Clement who most recently worked in Saudi Arabia.

Thomas, 27, a former steeplechase rider, spent the last year working for King Aziz Abdullah, overseeing a group of about 20 horses that included the former North American Grade 1 winner Premium Tap. Thomas met with Pletcher during the Dubai World Cup and then flew to New York to interview with Pletcher again.

"As far as a career move, obviously I'd like to have a career here in the United States," Thomas said. "In the long run this seemed like a better route."

Pletcher said: "He fits the mold of the type of person that you want - energetic and willing to work long hours, enthusiastic - we feel he'll fit in real well."

Thomas will be based at Belmont year-round, Pletcher said. Tristan Barry, who had worked out of Belmont in the spring and summer, will oversee the Saratoga division.

Benzel, who worked for Pletcher for nearly six years, will be based in Saratoga with about 20 horses, the majority for Gary and Mary West.

Giant Moon going to Preakness

Trainer Richard Schosberg decided to point Giant Moon toward a bigger target than Saturday's $150,000 Withers Stakes for 3-year-olds going one mile at Aqueduct. The New York-bred will next run in the $1 million Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, on May 17 at Pimlico.

"We're going straight to the Preakness," Schosberg said. "There is no point in running him in a one-turn mile, a grueling race. There is absolutely no reason for him to run in it. We won't run in anything before that. He runs best off a layoff."

Giant Moon last ran fourth in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 5 at Aqueduct, a strong bounce-back effort in which he was beaten only two lengths. In his previous race, Giant Moon suffered his first career defeat in Aqueduct's Gotham Stakes, tiring badly in his first experience on a sloppy track. He began his career with four straight wins.

* Pete Ferriola, whose job as private trainer for Paraneck Stable was over before it began, has taken a position as an assistant to trainer Joe Lostritto.

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell