09/16/2003 12:00AM

Purse incentives drive Cup fields up

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AUBURN, Wash. - A great deal of thought went into the planning for Sunday's inaugural Washington Cup Day, but the best idea of all was to pay purse money through eighth place in each of the seven stakes races that are restricted to Washington-breds.

None of the stakes attracted less than a dozen nominations and one, the $40,000 Trooper Seven Stakes for 3-year-old colts and geldings at one mile, drew 24.

When you can win a minimum of $800 for running eighth, why not take a shot?

Some of the horses nominated for some of the stakes clearly will be taking a shot, and several horses have been nominated to two or more stakes races. Even so, full or nearly full fields seem assured in all of the races, and the the favorite's role is up for grabs in almost every race.

The exception might be the Trooper Seven, in which multiple stakes winner Knightsbridge Road appears to have a clear edge over his many challengers.

Both of the six-furlong stakes races for 2-year-olds, the $40,000 Diane Kem for fillies and the $40,000 Captain Condo for colts and geldings, are wide open. The $40,000 John and Kitty Fletcher stakes for 3-year-old fillies at one mile will feature an intriguing match-up between Irish Day Handicap winner Brave Miss and the rapidly developing Ruby Dawn. The $40,000 Chinook Pass Sprint at six furlongs will pit track record holder Blue Tejano against Washington Owners Handicap winner Victor Slew.

The $50,000 Belle Roberts for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles will see Boeing Handicap winner Silver Screen Girl take on Emerald Distaff winner Infernal McGoon. And the $50,000 Washington Cup Classic at 1 1/16 miles will bring together Sabertooth, the wire-to-wire winner of last year's Longacres Mile, and Alfurune, the late-running winner of this year's Independence Day Handicap.

The eighth stakes on the Washington Cup Day card, the $100,000 Joe Gottstein Futurity for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, is not restricted to Washington-breds. The Gottstein, the traditional championship race for juveniles at Emerald, is a part of the Northwest Race Series and does not have separate nominations. The race is expected to bring together the top 2-year-olds in training here, including Harvard Avenue, Random Memo, Corvallis Dee, and Count Orange.

The 10-race Washington Cup Day program will be rounded out by a pair of $3,200 starter allowance races for older Washington-breds at 6 1/2 furlongs, each with an enhanced purse of $10,000.

Cancellation hurt bottom line

When Friday night's program was canceled after just one of eight scheduled races had been run, everybody lost.

Horsemen lost the opportunity to run for $43,800 in purses, not to mention the cost of administering Lasix shots to horses who did not run.

The track and the purse account lost approximately $50,000 apiece from their share of the handle, which was down $755,759 from the previous Friday to only $334,190. The track also had to refund more than $13,000 in group sales, plus thousands more in admissions, parking, and programs.

And fans, some of whom came from as far away as Spokane, lost their planned evening's entertainment. Some, perhaps including those who were alive in the daily double and the pick three, left disgruntled after venting on the hapless attendants at the customer service booths. A few vowed not to return.

None of this is meant to suggest that the jockeys should have ridden over a track they considered to be unsafe. No amount of money or goodwill is worth risking a rider's life and limb, or the life and limb of a jockey's mounts.

It is only meant to point out that considerable damage is done to the sport whenever races are canceled, and to suggest that they only be canceled as a last resort, after every alternative has been considered.

Firefall, Misconception win again

Both Firefall and Misconception won for the fifth time at the meet here on Saturday, tying Rightbyu for the most wins at the meet.

Both of the front-running routers won at one mile, with Firefall taking the sixth race over $6,250 company in 1:35.80 and Misconception defeating $16,000 rivals in 1:35 in the feature.

Aubrey Villyard, who trains Misconception for Frank and Phyllis Gaunt, brought the 6-year-old back from a long layoff for his first start of the year, which was at the $10,000 level. Misconception ran poorly, which may have been the key to his later success.

"That gave us a chance to drop him down to $3,200 and steal a race, then we stole another for $6,250," Villyard said. "By the time we got him back up to $10,000, his heart was built up and he was able to beat those horses, too."

Firefall is the latest in a string of prolific winners trained by Bill Tollett, who won races in bunches with Maid in the Moon here last season and Full Force Gale the season before. He said the three shared one thing in common.

"They were all happy horses by the time they started winning," he said. "Full Force Gale and Firefall didn't start out that way. They were depressed and mean, but we kept changing things until they were happy with their environment. I think that is as important as anything a trainer can do. Just make them happy."

Villyard said Misconception will be turned out until spring, but Tollett may have one more task for Firefall.

"I might just look for another race for him this weekend," he said. "I'd like to break that logjam with Misconception and Rightbyu."