09/05/2009 12:00AM

Rice-Pletcher race goes down to the wire

Tod Marks
Mother Russia gives trainer Linda Rice her 19th victory of the Spa meet on Saturday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It may be the year of Rachel, but it has been the summer of Linda.

Linda Rice entered the final three days of the meet with a serious chance to become the first woman to win a trainer's title at Saratoga. Entering Saturday's 12-race card, Rice and Todd Pletcher were tied with 18 wins apiece.

Rice recorded her 19th win of the meet when Mother Russia went gate to wire to win Saturday's $74,000 Peerless Springs Stakes by one length. Rice retained her lead through six races on Saturday.

"It'd be a real honor to win it if I can get it done," Rice, 45, said Saturday morning, "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I'm certainly going to give it my best shot. We've had a great meet any way you look at it. That would just make it a little bit better."

Rice is indeed giving it her best shot. She had 24 horses entered on the final three days - before scratches - and several more she entered did not get in because the races were not used. Rice has five entered in four races on Monday's card.

"I have some horses in, but the ones I really felt excited about running are not in," Rice said. "I have horses in, but I'm not taking shots. I did everything I could to get them in to give myself some chances."

Pletcher, 42, has won six Saratoga training titles, including four straight from 2003-06. He feels he has been snakebit to some degree in that he has 25 seconds at the meet to go along with his 18 wins.

"She's having terrific a meet," Pletcher said Saturday morning. "We're having what I would say is a pretty good meet. We've been pretty heavy on the seconds. A lot of horses have run well. Our first, second, and third percentage is very good."

Pletcher had nine horses entered on Saturday, but the first six he ran he could do no better than two seconds and two thirds. Over the final two days of the meeting, Pletcher had 11 horses to run in nine races.

"We still have some chances on Sunday and Monday, but I think we're a little more live [Saturday] than we are the last two days," Pletcher said.

Rice said it didn't matter to her that she started half as many horses at this meet as Pletcher.

"Frankly that's not the way those things are tabulated - never have been," she said.

Hushion's meet strong, too

Overshadowed by the ding-dong battle between Rice and Pletcher is the fabulous meet trainer Mike Hushion has had. When the first-time starter Lovely Lil won Friday's fifth race, it was Hushion's ninth win from 24 starters at the meet.

"She had worked well in the morning but not the type of horse you thought was going to run like that," Hushion said about Lovely Lil, a daughter of Tiznow, who won her debut by seven lengths, running 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.79.

Hushion said Lovely Lil could be a candidate for the Joseph A. Gimma at Belmont on Sept. 27.

Hushion's biggest win of the meet came with Fiddlers Afleet, who took the $150,000 Albany Handicap.

"I didn't come up here expecting to have a big meet," Hushion said. "Sometimes it just falls into place."

Maram unlikely for Garden City; Smooth Air shelved

The undefeated Maram, last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner, will most likely miss Saturday's Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park after suffering an injury to her left front foot, trainer Chad Brown said.

Brown said that Maram shed a frog, the bottom part of a horse's foot which acts like a shock absorber, and will most likely miss a scheduled workout for the race. She has been fitted with an aluminum pad for training.

"It looks like I'm going to miss my breeze," Brown said. "If she's not 100 percent and I can't breeze her, then I'm not going to run her. I'd say she's unlikely."

A field of 7 to 9 is expected for the Garden City, including Gozzip Girl, Katara, Keertana, Many Kisses, Miss World, Pull Dancer and possibly Blind Date and Mary's Follies.

Meanwhile, Brown said that the multiple stakes winner Smooth Air has been to sent to Bill Riccio's farm in Ocala, Fla., for a vacation after a bone scan revealed "some hot spots here and there."

Smooth Air finished last as the favorite in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap here on Aug. 8, and was initially diagnosed with a sore foot.

"We got the foot cleared up, but then a week later you could something was bothering this horse. He kept wanting to drift," Brown said. "The good news is its nothing major. He just had some spots where'd you want to give him a bit of time."

Brown said Riccio had the horse before when he was laid up.

"We just wanted to trace our steps back to when he was good and try to get him there again," Brown said.