08/31/2012 3:50PM

Hovdey: Rivalry continues in Del Mar Derby, minus the fireworks


Are you ready to rumble???!!!

Too bad. Won’t happen. Even though Sunday’s Del Mar Derby once again pits principals from the dramatics surrounding last week’s Pacific Classic – sparked by the sale of contender Richard’s Kid – the whole business has been dialed down and cooler heads figure to prevail.

In our last episode, Jill Baffert, whose husband, Bob, trained Richard’s Kid until he was sold eight days before the Classic, had sharp words for Mark Verge regarding the transaction at a pre-race event. Verge, a minority partner in the purchase of Richard’s Kid, gave as good as he got, the whole thing went viral, and California horse racing had itself a juicy subplot to what turned out to be a darn good horse race, in which Dullahan edged the Baffert-trained Game On Dude, with Richard’s Kid finishing third.

[Complete coverage of racing at Del Mar: News, PPs, and video]

Adding grist to the mix was the 40-day suspension of trainer Doug O’Neill, which began the day after Richard’s Kid was transferred to the O’Neill stable by Verge and partners. Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s assistant, is now point man for what is being called Team O’Neill, at least until Sept. 27, when the suspension ends.

Team O’Neill and the Baffert stable are back in the thick of things for Sunday’s $300,000 Del Mar Derby with Tones, who finished second in a division of the opening-day Oceanside Stakes for Verge and partners, and Midnight Crooner, who won the other division for Arnold and Ellen Zetcher. This time, however, no horses have changed hands, there will be no derby cocktail party, and all sides have apparently decided to let the horses do the talking.

“I had a good time at the party,” Verge said. “I just wish Richard’s Kid would have had a little better trip in the Classic.”

Don’t get the idea, though, that the Del Mar Derby is just another Baffert-Team O’Neill smackdown. The field is deep and diverse, with potential threats from all corners.

Jersey Derby winner Howe Great hits town flying the Team Valor brand and trainer Graham Motion, the outfit responsible for the successful raid last year with Summer Soiree to win the Del Mar Oaks.

Old Time Hockey, from the Tom Proctor barn, won a tough one from the stubborn speed horse My Best Brother last time out in the La Jolla Handicap, reversing the decision of an Oceanside Stakes division.

Until his comeback romp a month ago, Brother Francis was America’s most accomplished maiden. Perhaps at last Jim Cassidy has found the key. And leave it to Richard Mandella to sneak up on a $300,000 pot with the improving Smart Ellis, a son of Smarty Jones and the fine turf mare Corrazona.

Tones, a grandson of Dansili, hails from Ireland, while Midnight Crooner was bred by the Zetchers in Kentucky from a mating of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner War Chant and their New Zealand mare Midnight Kiss. The family will be on display on Saturday as well when Midnight Interlude, Midnight Crooner’s full brother, runs in the Harry F. Brubaker at a mile on the grass, his second start after a layoff.

“The brothers are different, at least in their running style,” Arnold Zetcher said. “Crooner runs with his head down, and when he gets to the end of a race he really digs in. He’s a fighter, and that makes him a lot of fun to watch.”

After an impressive maiden win on synthetics at Golden Gate, Midnight Crooner was tossed into the 2012 Triple Crown mix with a try in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. He finished eighth, beaten about nine lengths by Dullahan.

“That was probably a little too much for him at the time,” Zetcher conceded. “But it was worth the try. Now he’s proving himself.”

The Zetchers hope to wrap the meet with a bang next Wednesday when their Posse colt Rolling Fog runs in the Del Mar Futurity. Then again, almost anything would be better than their experience of last weekend, when they ventured east to watch their CashCall Futurity winner Liaison run poorly in the Travers.

“He’s always been part of the race, but this time he wasn’t,” Zetcher said. “He had a terrible trip, very wide, but I could tell something might not have been quite right when he wasn’t closer than he was early. It turned out he bled.”

Liaison’s wasn’t the only terrible trip. Attempting to fly from San Diego to JFK nonstop, the Zetchers’ flight was delayed while Delta found a part for their plane.

“The part was in Atlanta,” Zetcher said.

Rather than waiting for more airline fairy tales, they hired a ride, drove to Los Angeles, and hopped a flight to New York that got them there at 2 a.m.

“That should have been a signal to us it wasn’t going to be a great trip,” Zetcher said.

As it happens, Zetcher and Verge have more in common than an immediate desire to win the Del Mar Derby. It was Zetcher who spearheaded the frustrated efforts of a horsemen’s group in 2009 to purchase Santa Anita from its previous owner, Magna Entertainment, during that company’s bankruptcy proceedings. Verge, a Los Angeles businessman, was tabbed last May as Santa Anita CEO for the Stronach Group, an entity formed by former Magna chairman Frank Stronach in the wake of the bankruptcy.

It was also Zetcher who bought Richard’s Kid in early 2009 from Robert Meyerhoff on Baffert’s recommendation, won the ’09 Pacific Classic, then sold the horse to Zabeel Racing in early 2010.

“I’m very happy mine were just quiet little boring transactions,” Zetcher said with a laugh.

In the meantime, while Tones does his thing in the Del Mar Derby, Verge hopes Richard’s Kid will be back for the Awesome Again Stakes (formerly the Goodwood) at the upcoming Santa Anita fall meet that will be climaxed by the two-day Breeders’ Cup festival, Nov. 2-3. Verge noted that among the special events of the season will be the unveiling of a lifesize Zenyatta bronze by Nina Kaiser and a Doug O’Neill bobblehead giveaway, presumably scheduled after O’Neill’s suspension ends.

“It’ll be fun come Santa Anita,” Verge said. “We’ve got a lot of exciting things planned, and it’s not the worst thing to have some O’Neill-Baffert rivalry. Can’t hurt the game at all.”