03/24/2008 11:00PM

Pletcher aide to test his own waters

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - After working for two of the most successful horsemen in the game, Seth Benzel believes the time is right to go out on his own. Beginning May 1, Benzel will leave his position as an assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher to open a public stable.

Benzel, 33, worked for Pletcher for nearly six years following a 4 1/2-year stint as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Starting at age 18, Benzel trained for two years at Finger Lakes, mostly for his father, before attending college for four years.

"I've looked at it for the last couple of years, really,'' Benzel said Tuesday morning at Belmont Park. "It's always been my ultimate goal to go out on my own ever since I started with Bill and worked my way up with Todd."

To start, Benzel said he would be based at Saratoga with 20 horses, the majority for owners Gary and Mary West, whom Benzel met when he worked as an assistant to Mott beginning in the late 1990s. Saratoga's backside opens in mid-April.

"They're going to continue to have other trainers, but they've been a real push for me to get off the ground," Benzel said. "They helped me both horse-number-wise and financially as well to give me a great start at what I think is my best chance of making an impact."

Since joining Pletcher's outfit in June 2002, Benzel has served as a New York-based assistant, spending six to seven months in Saratoga and the rest of the time at Belmont. Benzel got to work with top-quality stock during his time with Pletcher, who has won the last four Eclipse Awards as North America's leading trainer and who owns the yearly records for purse money won and stakes races won.

"It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life," Benzel said about leaving Pletcher. "I really felt like because the situation with Todd was so ideal, I really had to think of each side of it and make sure it was the right move, and this year it happened to be."

Benzel is basically following the same path Pletcher took when he decided to leave D. Wayne Lukas at the end of 1995.

"It can be an intimidating situation when you work for someone that is as successful as Wayne has been and you're sort of leaving the best horses in the world," Pletcher said. "My advice to [Benzel] was at some point you got to break loose and give it a try. If you feel like you want to do that, there's no other way to find out than to do it."

Pletcher said that assistant Tristan Barry will take over Benzel's role in Saratoga, and that he is in the process of hiring someone to help him out at Belmont.

Irish Smoke back in training

Irish Smoke, who won the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga last summer, has recently joined Richard Dutrow Jr.'s Aqueduct stable and is training toward her 3-year-old debut.

Irish Smoke won her first two starts at 2 when she was owned by West Point Stable and Lewis Lakin and trained by Patrick Biancone. After off-the-board finishes in the Alcibiades and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Irish Smoke was put through the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky auction ring last November, when she was bought for $750,000 by the International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Inc. Stable. After wintering on a farm in Kentucky, Irish Smoke has breezed twice at Aqueduct, including a five-furlong move in 1:02.18 on Friday.

Dutrow said the long-term goal for Irish Smoke is the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga on Aug. 2. Where and when she runs before then has yet to be determined.

"When she's ready to run, I'll start looking around," Dutrow said.

Dutrow said he's not sure what he will do next with Double or Nothing, the 3-year-old gelded son of Double Honor who won Saturdays' $64,800 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel. Double or Nothing drifted out late in the Private Terms yet still won by a half-length.

Dutrow said Double or Nothing has been bothered by foot problems, specifically with the bottom part of his foot known as the frog, but he isn't sure if that was the reason for Double or Nothing getting out.

Rite Moment staying put

Owner Steve Sigler has told trainer Gary Contessa that he does not intend to sell Grade 2 winner Rite Moment, and the overachieving filly will be pointed to either the Bed o' Roses here on April 19 or the $200,000 Vinery Madison at Keeneland on April 9.

"Steve said, 'Gary, we're going all the way with this one,' " Contessa said Tuesday. "I'm fine with it."

Rite Moment became a Grade 2 winner with her one-length victory in Saturday's $157,900 Distaff at Aqueduct. It was her fourth win from five starts since Contessa bought her for a partnership that includes Sigler's Winning Move Stable, John Moirano, Seidman Stables and Ravenwood Stable.

"The thing is, there's no telling how good she is going long," Contessa said, referring to Rite Moment's 13 1/4-length victory in a two-turn overnight stakes March 6 in which she stumbled at the start. "She could be a great horse going long."

Tight Storm debuts for Contessa

Contessa hopes he and Sigler have another Rite Moment in Tight Storm, a 4-year-old filly they purchased last month who debuts for them in Thursday's featured second-level allowance race at six furlongs.

Tight Storm raced primarily in the Midwest with trainer John Good, winning 2 of 9 starts, both over synthetic surfaces. She has impressed Contessa with her morning training over Aqueduct's inner dirt track.

"Tight Storm trains like Rite Moment," said Contessa, who will also run What's Your Point in the same race. "I hope she's another great buy. She trains like she could be. And What's Your Point isn't a terrible horse to have in there, either."

Mulligatawny would be the horse to beat if she runs. David Jacobson, who claimed her last out from Steve Asmussen, said he hasn't decided yet if Mulligatawny will start or scratch in favor of getting more time between races.