08/02/2007 11:00PM

A longshot for your Hirsch exacta

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PHOENIX - I know, I know - I'm spitting into the wind by going against unbeaten Nashoba's Key and top-class Balance in Sunday's Grade 2 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar. But I'm not doing this on some whim. I believe there's good reason to look at River Savage, who figures to be in the vicinity of 15-1 while Nashoba's Key and Balance will both be short prices.

River Savage is a proven commodity against good opposition, and she moves to what figures to be a better trip for her.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you River Savage is as talented as Nashoba's Key or Balance, or even another Hirsch rival, Somethinaboutlaura. What I will tell you, however, is that the 5-year-old River Savage has shown she can, at times, come up with a performance that can make her a player here.

She proved her quality when third in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita, behind Balance. In Hollywood's Grade 2 Hawthorne Handicap May 6, she dueled for the early lead and then edged away late to win. Sure, she wasn't beating the likes of Nashoba's Key or Balance, but when you beat who shows up against you in a Grade 2, you deserve some credit.

She didn't race for two months after the Hawthorne. She resurfaced in the Grade 2 A Gleam at Hollywood Park, and bobbled at the start of the seven-furlong race. She rushed up to press the pace but fell apart to finish seventh.

But River Savage doesn't want to sprint. She moves back to 1 1/16 miles, and has worked in solid fashion over the Del Mar Polytrack. Her Hawthorne win came over Hollywood's Cushion Track, and while there are differences between that surface and Del Mar's, at least it shows she handles a synthetic surface.

Now, if you don't believe River Savage can win it's still possible to make her pay for you. After all, a Nashoba's Key-Balance exacta box pays nothing. If you believe, for the sake of argument, that Nashoba's Key can't lose, then maybe the right play is to take a stand against Balance and use River Savage on the back end of your exacta wagers. You could be taking an even-money winner and turning it into a 10-1 payoff should River Savage beat Balance for the place.

A few items that caught my eye

Did anyone see the recent video of racing in New Zealand with an innovative new starting gate, one without a top? This surely provides more safety for horse, jockey and starting-gate crew. The stalls are still metal gates, but they resemble a chain-link fence on the front and sides. Do we really need that upper bracket just to tell us the program numbers?

* I wrote a few weeks back that in my opinion Commentator is not a top-class sprinter, but instead is a top-class miler who can use his sprint speed to dictate pace. After his sizzle-and-fizzle in the Grade 2 Tom Fool last month and then again in last Saturday's Grade 2 Vanderbilt at Saratoga, I remain convinced of this, and hope trainer Nick Zito now lays out a plan to get this fine animal to the BC Dirt Mile, a race that seems written for him.

* Much of the buzz for the next few weeks will be regarding another meeting of the top 3-year-olds in the Travers. But I'm most looking forward to next Saturday in Chicago, when it's After Market vs. Sunriver in the Arlington Million, and Citronnade vs. Honey Ryder vs. Royal Highness vs. Lady of Venice in the Beverly D. Can't wait.

* Here's hoping Jose Santos has a joyous retirement. He may be best known for guiding Funny Cide to victory in the Kentucky Derby a few years back, but I'll always remember him for what I consider one of the 10 best rides I ever saw. He guided a seemingly beaten Manila out from trouble and on to victory at Santa Anita way back in 1986 over what I consider the best BC Turf field ever assembled. Among his beaten opponents were the following year's turf champ, Theatrical; one of the best turf mares in history, Estrapade; and one of the best Europeans of the last half-century, Dancing Brave.

We out West didn't get to see much of Santos, but this ride was a prime example of his excellence. Enjoy your time Jose.