04/29/2003 12:00AM

Road Afleet gets rare break


AUBURN, Wash. - Road Afleet may or may not have been the best horse in Sunday's $35,000 Seattle Handicap. Colterkind looked stronger than Road Afleet when he crossed the wire a half-length ahead of him in a near-track-record 1:07.80 for six furlongs.

But Colterkind angled in and bumped Road Afleet when both were trying to get through the same hole inside the furlong marker, and the stewards disqualified Colterkind and placed him second. Colterkind's rider, Sandi Gann, didn't like the call, but Dan Markle, who trains Road Afleet for B and B Stable and George Axtell, saw a measure of what he called "frontier justice" in the decision.

"You always hate to win a race that way, but our horse has had so many tough breaks in his career that maybe he was just due," Markle said. "He lost a couple of heartbreakers to Colterkind last season, and he raced in trouble both times. The horse tries so darned hard that it's good to see him finally win one, even if he had to back into it."

The late moves of both Road Afleet and Colterkind, as well as that of third-place finisher Turban, were set up by a torrid three-horse pace duel among Salt Grinder, Handy N Bold, and Deas Island. The trio battled through a half-mile in 44 seconds. Salt Grinder, who was part of the favored Jim Penney-trained entry with Turban, won the pace battle before tiring to finish fifth of nine.

Road Afleet, a 5-year-old son of Adventure Road, won the restricted Backstretch Chapel Overnight Handicap at 3 and won two allowance races here last season, but Sunday's win was his first in an open stakes race.

Saito's wishes getting answered

Jockey Scott Saito said he feels very much at home at Emerald Downs, as well he might. Saito, who is 39, grew up in Seattle and cut his racing teeth at Longacres, where he worked as a groom and exercise rider. He served his apprenticeship in northern California, and for the last 13 years he has been a regular in Ohio at Thistledown's marathon meet, which stretches from March into December.

"I won a couple of riding titles in the early 1990's, but in recent years I have just tried to maintain a high win percentage while cutting back on my mounts," Saito said. "I was able to win 100 races a year and finish in the top 10, so it was a good situation for me.

"I got married a year ago, though, and my wife is a school teacher. It's easier for her to find a job here than in Cleveland, so we decided to move back here. I hope the move will work out well for both of us."

It has worked out well so far for Saito, who was tied for second in the jockey standings after the first six days of the meet with five wins. The transition was made smoother because he knew some of the local horsemen from Longacres and northern California, and because he was able to make new acquaintances during visits here in each of the past two years.

"I rode here for one day two years ago and for two days last year as part of my involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation," Saito said. "I donated all my winnings to the foundation, and I was fortunate to win with four of my 11 mounts over the two years."

Saito has been involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses, for the past five years. He donates $5 from each of his winning mounts to the foundation.

"At Thistledown the track matched my contributions, then some of the owners and trainers started matching them, too," Saito said. "Pretty soon some of the other riders started doing the same thing, and it really snowballed.

"I'm doing the same thing here, and Emerald Downs is matching my contributions. I just find my involvement to be very gratifying, and I find that it helps me to keep things in perspective. When I think about the problems some of these kids have, I realize that my problems are pretty small."

Portland Meadows business up

Portland Meadows reported significant increases in handle at its 80-day 2002-03 meet, which closed Sunday. Wagering on the live races was up 11 percent to average just over $250,000 per day, while total handle, including simulcast wagering, reached $48.6 million, an increase of 14 percent over last year's figure.

Juan Gutierrez wrapped up the riding title with 94 wins, while Jim Fergason was the leading trainer with 44 wins. Back Street Gal was named horse of the meet after winning all five of her starts in Portland. Poker Brad, winner of the Portland Meadows Mile, was honored as the top handicap horse.

* Magna Entertainment, which operates both Portland Meadows and Multnomah Greyhound Park in Portland, has been granted approval from the Oregon Racing Commission to install Instant Racing parimutuel machines at both tracks. Magna hopes to have 20 machines in use at Multnomah Greyhound Park by the end of this month and will install a yet-to-be-specified number of machines at Portland Meadows before the track's next meet begins in October.