07/24/2008 12:00AM

Grasshopper is on the right track


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Though he has won four races, including a graded stakes, Grasshopper - who runs in Saturday's Whitney Handicap - is best known for a race he lost.

In last year's $1 million Travers, Grasshopper set the pace and when Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense came to him, Grasshopper did not yield. Instead, Grasshopper fought on through the stretch, before finally succumbing late to lose by a half-length to Street Sense, trained by Carl Nafzger.

"That was something," said Neil Howard, trainer of Grasshopper. "It was nice going into it because the horse was doing good - you didn't have the pressure like Carl did. So you were a little more relaxed going in, and then when they came off the turn and it looked like he was still striding out, for a second there . . ."

Howard's voice trailed off, but you knew Howard thought Grasshopper had a chance to win. Howard, who was standing next to his wife, Sue, wasn't the only one cheering on Grasshopper and jockey Robby Albarado.

"Todd [Pletcher] was standing next to me," Howard said. "Even Todd started yelling 'C'mon Robby.' He was yelling louder than I was."

Grasshopper is only 1 for 6 since the Travers, that victory coming in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds in his 4-year-old debut. Grasshopper ran second in both the New Orleans Handicap and the Westchester Handicap. He came back 16 days after the Westchester and finished fifth in the Pimlico Special. Those two races in a short period of time may have taken a toll when Grasshopper finished fourth to Curlin in the Stephen Foster.

"We ran back a little quick, maybe got slightly off track with him," Howard said. "But now he's had enough time to bounce back, and he's done well."

Since Grasshopper has run two of his best races at Saratoga - he also won a second-level allowance prior to the Travers - and has trained well since returning here this summer, Howard feels this could be a good spot for him.

"We feel like we're going in there on a track that he really likes," Howard said. "He really gathers himself up when he's got a long way straight down the backside. He just seems to punch on this racetrack."

Desert Party wins Sanford despite obstacles

Showing maturity beyond his brief career, Desert Party overcame a slow start and some traffic on the final turn before rallying up the inside to capture the Grade 2, $150,000 Sanford Stakes for 2-year-olds on Thursday at Saratoga.

Desert Party ($3.90) drew clear in the final furlong of the six-furlong race to win by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:12.23 on the muddy main track. Officer Ipod, the early pacesetter, finished second, three-quarters of a length in front of Vineyard Haven. Phosphorescent finished last in the field of four.

Bullion Cache, Dagnabit, and Notonthesamepage were scratched.

Edgar Prado rode Desert Party for trainer Eoin Harty, who also trained Desert Party's sire, Street Cry. Desert Party was purchased for $2.1 million by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley Stable in February at a 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder.

"I thought I was [in trouble] on the turn," Harty said as he walked to the winner's circle.

Harty said he considered scratching, but decided to run after huddling with Darley USA president Jimmy Bell after they observed the early races.

"The track's surprisingly good for all the rain it's had," said Harty, who said his wife, Kathy, encouraged him over the phone from California to stay in the race. "It's been super all day."

Desert Party won his lone previous try against maidens at Arlington Park on June 22. Harty said Desert Party would make his next start in the Grade 1, $250,000 Hopeful Stakes on closing day, Sept. 1.

Visionaire earns King's Bishop berth

Visionaire, winner of the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct in March, rallied from last to win a 6o1/2-furlong allowance by one length on Thursday. Trainer Michael Matz was using the race as a prep for the Grade 1 King's Bishop here on Aug. 23.

After winning the Gotham, Visionaire finished fifth in the Blue Grass, 12th in the Kentucky Derby, and third in the Northern Dancer, all two-turn races.

On Thursday, Visionaire sat last under Alan Garcia while Knights Cross, Street Magician, and Out of Gwedda dueled through fractions of 21.62 seconds and 44.74. Visionaire, equipped with blinkers for the first time, rallied along the inside to run down Knights Cross late. It was a neck back to Out of Gwedda in third. Visionaire's final time over the slop was 1:17.15.

"The idea was to see if he could run in the King's Bishop," Matz said. "I didn't think there would be enough pace, but there was quite a bit of pace; they went pretty fast. He just needed to win a race. His pedigree said he should probably cut back a little.''

The King's Bishop is run at seven furlongs.

Ocean Colors to get checked out

Ocean Colors, who finished last as the favorite in Wednesday's Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes, was "very stressed" following the race, trainer Steve Asmussen said Thursday. Asmussen said that Ocean Colors did not have any soundness issues, but that veterinarian Dr. David Lambert was due to fly in from Kentucky to examine the filly.

"We'll do some tests on her, get Dr. Lambert in here to ultrasound her. He's done some work on her before," Asmussen said. "Physically, soundness, limb-wise, I think we're 100 percent there. We want to eliminate everything as far as the cause."

Ocean Colors is the second-to-last foal out of the Kentucky Derby-winning mare Winning Colors. Ocean Colors was sent off the favorite in the Schuylerville off a stellar maiden victory at Churchill Downs.

Meanwhile, Jardin, who won the Schuylerville for Asmussen, came out of the race in good order and will point to the Grade 1 Spinaway on Aug. 31.

"She did extremely well yesterday," Asmussen said. "She handled nicely and she won by four. She has plenty of time before her next race."

Asmussen, who won three races on Wednesday's card, earned his fourth victory of the meet when the 2-year-old filly Stunning Electra ($11.60) won the first race run Thursday.

Who'll stop the rain?

A total of 2 1/4 inches of rain fell on Saratoga on opening day and about another inch fell on Thursday, creating the second day of wet tracks and no turf racing. Also, NYRA postponed the race 1 steeplechase from Thursday to next Wednesday.

NYRA took three of the four scheduled turf races for Friday off the turf. The only race it plans to run on the grass is the Grade 2 Lake George.

Thus, the first 11 scheduled turf races of the meet were run on the main track. That surpassed the entire total of six taken off the turf all last year. After 45 horses scratched Wednesday, there were 35 scratches on Thursday, not including the nine steeplechase horses that didn't run.

Naturally, business for the first two days took a big hit. Opening-day attendance was down 39 percent to 18,127, while ontrack handle was down 29.5 percent to $2,813,982 and all-sources handle was off 25 percent to $11,431,845.

Attendance and handle figures for Thursday's card were not available at press time. But attendance was going to be down significantly because there was no giveaway. Last year, the opening-day attendance was 31,971 due in part to an Angel Cordero bobblehead giveaway.

The forecast for Friday was good, but thunderstorms were back in the forecast for the weekend.

o Beginning Friday, fans could begin accessing replays of NYRA races on nyra.com. NYRA's race replay service was interrupted last month when the State Racing and Wagering Board undertook a review of the contract and operating procedures of NYRA's new race replay vendor.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman