08/10/2004 12:00AM

Salt Grinder has shot in Mile


AUBURN, Wash. - Trainer Jim Penney will have a fighting chance to win a record fifth Longacres Mile when the Northwest's most prestigious race is renewed for the 69th time on Aug. 22.

Salt Grinder ensured as much on Sunday with his smashing win in the $40,000 Governor's Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs. Under regular rider Gallyn Mitchell, Salt Grinder outdueled the favorite, Willie the Cat, through a half-mile in 44.60 seconds, then drew away through the stretch to score by 3 1/2 lengths over the fast-finishing Best on Tap in 1:14.60.

It was the second straight score for Salt Grinder, a 5-year-old son of Salt Lake who won his seasonal debut just two weeks earlier in a six furlong allowance run in 1:08.20.

"He'll have to come back in two weeks for the second time in a row to go in the Mile, but I think he's capable of doing that," said Penney. "He was in training for a long time before his first race this year, so he was very fit. He bounced back from that race very well, and if he comes out of this one the same way, he'll go in the Mile. We'll be monitoring him very closely."

Salt Grinder was always a good horse. He won his first start at 3 in a then track-record 1:01.40 for 5 1/2 furlongs, and later that year he decisively defeated the brilliant Flying Notes in the 1 1/16-mile Washington Owners Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Last year, however, Salt Grinder was winless through six starts, though he did run second in the Governor's and sixth in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile.

"He was bumped in his first start last year, and we were fighting soreness in his hind end for the rest of his campaign," said Penney. "It was a minor injury, but he was never quite 100 percent."

Salt Grinder was given a full 11 months between his outing in last year's Mile and his 2004 debut, and the result was evident on Sunday.

"We felt all along that if we could get him right, if we could get him healthy and sound, he'd be our horse for this year's Mile," said Penney. "As of today, he's our horse."

Salt Grinder will attempt to follow in the footsteps of Penney-trained Longacres Mile winners Silver Mallet in 1973, Theologist in 1977, Edneator in 2000, and Sabertooth in 2002. Penney's four wins tie him with Allen Drumheller for the most Longacres Mile victories by a trainer, and that feat, more than any other, earned both men berths among the dozen original inductees into the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, which was inaugurated last year.

The Governor's Handicap, incidentally, served as an example of the increasing irrelevancy of handicap weights, at least in this part of the country. Willie the Cat, the 120-pound highweight, was supposed to concede up to six pounds to his five rivals. After jockey overweights were taken into account, however, the spread was just two pounds.

Stakes the spot for maiden

When California-based trainer Ed Moger Jr. sent Indian Weaver to the barn of local trainer Frank Lucarelli early this month, his plan was to have Lucarelli run him in a maiden special weight race for 2-year-olds last Sunday. It was Lucarelli who called an audible.

"I told him the stakes on Saturday would be easier than the maiden special weight race, so why not try to break his maiden for a $40,000 purse?" said Lucarelli.

The reason this past Saturday's Strong Ruler Stakes figured to be easier than an open maiden race is that the stakes is doubly restricted. To run, a horse must have a sire who was nominated in the year of his conception, plus the horse himself must be eligible for, or supplemented to, the Northwest Race Series. Indian Weaver, a $30,000 WTBA sale yearling by Basket Weave, qualified on both counts.

Lucarelli's suggestion was testimony to his friendship with Moger, because Lucarelli had his own Strong Ruler candidate in Billy Stark. Moreover, the last time a similar situation arose, Lucarelli saddled the Moger-trained No Curfew to defeat his own Cascade Casey by a head in the $100,000 Gottstein Futurity in 1999.

Saturday's result wasn't that close. Indian Weaver, who was favored at 3-5 off a pair of seconds against maiden special weight company in California, took the lead on the turn and drew off to score by 11 widening lengths after a muddy 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:18.80. Kaptnwice and Smilodon, both maidens, finished second and third, while Billy Stark checked in fourth.

"After I saw my horse wasn't going to win, I was rooting for Ed's horse as hard as anybody," said Lucarelli. "Ed is one of my best friends, and I'm happy for him. I tell you, though, the way that horse won doesn't say much for our 2-year-olds."

The locals will have two chances to turn the tables on Indian Weaver. Lucarelli said the gelding will remain on the grounds for the $50,000 WTBA Lads Stakes at a mile on Aug. 29 and the $100,000 Gottstein Futurity at 1 1/16 miles on Sept. 19.