08/15/2003 11:00PM

Puzzlement beats Volponi in Saratoga BC

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was Puzzlement whom trainer Phil Johnson feared the most when he ran Volponi in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap two weeks ago.

Right horse, wrong race.

Johnson's worst fears were realized on Saturday when Puzzlement, under Jorge Chavez, rallied up the rail in the stretch and outfinished a wide Volponi to win the Grade 2, $300,000 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap by 3 1/4 lengths. For the fifth time in as many starts this year, Volponi finished second. It was 1 1/4 lengths back to Iron Deputy in third.

The Saratoga Cup was the first stakes victory for Puzzlement in 11 tries. Puzzlement, a 4-year-old son of Pine Bluff, is owned by Joseph Shields and trained by Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens.

Puzzlement, like Volponi, was running back just two weeks after competing in the Whitney, in which he finished fourth, but only 1 1/2 lengths behind second-place finisher Volponi. Medaglia d'Oro won the race.

"Today we got lucky, we used the bias today to our advantage," Jerkens said. "It worked against us the last time, it worked for us today. The horse repeated the good race that he ran last time and we got lucky."

Puzzlement was last in the early stages while Blue Boat, under Edgar Prado, set fractions of 23.98 seconds, 48.10, and 1:11.89. Prado kept Blue Boat in the three path, and Volponi, being ridden by Jerry Bailey for the first time, was to his outside.

"He wanted to be involved," said Bailey, referring to Johnson's instructions.

Turning for home, Blue Boat continued to float Volponi wide and Bailey took Volponi even wider to get away from Blue Boat. Meanwhile, Chavez kept Puzzlement along the inside down the backstretch and guided him around a tiring Harlan's Holiday - who finished last - and a stalled State Shinto around the turn.

At the quarter pole, Chavez guided Puzzlement back toward the rail inside of Iron Deputy. It was a tight opening in upper stretch, but Chavez squeezed him through and Puzzlement kicked hard down the lane. Puzzlement covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.54 and returned $15.80 to win.

"There was enough room to get through, and that was the key," Chavez said. "I saved all the ground and the distance helped him a lot."

Johnson instructed Bailey to put Volponi into the race. While Johnson noted the loss of ground, he said it didn't factor into Volponi losing the race.

"We had absolutely no excuse," he said.