02/10/2010 12:00AM

Jockey fight provides opportunity

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PHILADELPHIA - Who knew the betting opportunity of the year would come Jan. 22 at Philadelphia Park? It was the rare "fighter off" scenario.

Seems Erilius Vaz had very specific instructions when riding the 5-year-old mare Divine Light in the . At a hearing on Jan. 21, he told the stewards that he was instructed to get the mare to the outside, which, as it turned out, was a real obstacle.

Divine Light had post 2. Annabanananandmom broke sharply from post 11 and lit off for the top. Mi Helena also broke well from post 4 and was just to Divine Light's outside as they bent into the first turn of the mile and 70-yard race. Then, there was Rockley Beach, also a sharp breaker from post 9.

By the time the field hit the backstretch, Divine Light was on the rail, with a horse directly outside her, another horse just outside that horse, and a leader who had crossed over to eliminate any escape route.

Vaz, knowing his instructions, did the only sensible thing. He pointed Divine Light at Mi Helena like a missile, made the hard right turn, and rammed the horse ridden by Ademar Santos.

Santos, apparently not knowing Vaz had been told to get to the outside, held his ground, stunned by the whole deal. Even if he wanted to move to give Vaz room, he had no place to go as Rockley Beach was just to his outside.

The jockeys began to shout at each other as the field moved down the backstretch. Santos apparently wanted to know what Vaz was doing. Vaz wanted to get outside.

Before he could get outside, Vaz threw a backhand right at Santos who responded with light tap back at Vaz.

Vaz, apparently still unhappy he had not been able to get outside, slashed Santos with his whip.

Not long after, Vaz guided Divine Light to the outside. After being second and then fourth early, Divine Light dropped all the way back to eighth to get position. And then she made a nice outside move to finish fifth. That she was eventually disqualified and placed ninth behind Mi Helena was irrelevant to the handicapping proposition. This was a racehorse.

Divine Light had won seven of her previous 22 races. She simply needed to be ridden correctly. Vaz had certainly tried to do the right thing. That there were objects in his way was hardly his fault.

Sadly, by the time Divine Light ran back on Jan. 22, Vaz had long since been ejected from the track. He was allowed to ride the rest of the card on Jan. 8 and then ruled off the next day.

The hearing had been held the day before the race. Anybody with knowledge of what Vaz had said was in prime position to cash a bet.

Abel Mariano got the mount. He got Divine Light to the outside, did not yell at anybody or hit anybody, and won the race by 4 1/2 lengths at 8-1. The mare got a 68 Beyer Speed Figure, a number she had achieved many times. It was a 13-point improvement over her race on Jan. 8.

The stewards did not think Vaz's attempts to get outside that day were praiseworthy. In fact, they suspended him for 200 days. They also suspended Santos for 90 days, even though it was clear he was not the aggressor. If Santos had not yelled at Vaz and not retaliated after he got smacked, he would have had no issues with the stewards. But he did retaliate, so he got the days.

By the way, Mi Helena also ran back. She finished ninth in the Jan. 8 race. She finished ninth again Jan. 19. Apparently, she just isn't that talented and wasn't going anywhere even if she hadn't been rammed.

All handicapping info is not in books. We all need hands-on experience. And you never know when you might see a race where hands are used in such a way that you might miss the deeper meaning. The next time this happens, we will all be ready.

Big race would clash with Final Four

It may not be as big as Mi Helena-Divine Light, but Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra does have the potential to attract some interest.

Congratulations to Charles Cella for getting that $5 million together to give the Rachel-Zenyatta race a chance.

Now, move the race.

Not sure if anyone noticed, but April 3 also happens to be one of the biggest dates on the American sporting calendar. It is the Final Four in Indianapolis. All the national media will be there, so will CBS. The two semifinal basketball games will generate huge television ratings.

You really don't want to share the stage with the Final Four. You can't win.

Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, is already saying he might not be ready for such a race by April 3. Clearly, he isn't going to run Rachel if that is her first race of 2010. He is going to need a prep sometime in March, just like Zenyatta.

So, move the race to April 17. It is a dead Saturday on the sporting calendar, two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, two weeks after the Final Four, a week after the Masters and the possible return of Tiger Woods. You don't want to be battling with that either.

I know Oaklawn's meet is supposed to end April 10. Extend it by a week. That gives Rachel more time, and it gives horse racing a chance at the spotlight all by itself.