08/22/2013 12:21PM

Saratoga: Centre Court, Velazquez team up in Ballston Spa

Barbara D. Livingston
Laughing won the Grade 1 Diana by going wire to wire (above), but will have some pace competition in the Ballston Spa on Saturday.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Leparoux off, Velazquez on.

That’s the case for Centre Court, the four-time graded stakes winner trained by Rusty Arnold who has had one of the nation’s most brilliant grass riders, Julien Leparoux, on her back for her last eight races. But in Saturday’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes, the 4-year-old filly will be ridden for the first-time by John Velazquez, a Hall of Famer with a blade-by-blade knowledge of Saratoga’s inner turf course, where the Ballston Spa will be contested at 1 1/16 miles.

What gives?

“Believe me, it had nothing to do with the way Julien’s ridden her,” said Arnold on Thursday. “He rode her perfectly.”

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Arnold said he made the decision to go with Velazquez because of uncertainty over where he was going to run the filly. With Leparoux now based on the West Coast at Del Mar, Arnold said he pulled the trigger on Velazquez to make certain he had a rider locked in who knew Saratoga.

“We wanted to make sure we had someone who was riding six or seven every day here instead of putting Julien on a plane to come all the way across the country,” Arnold said.

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Centre Court will likely face seven other fillies or mares in Saturday’s Ballston Spa, which goes as the 10th race on a jam-packed 14-race card. Her top opponents include Hungry Island, a tough 5-year-old mare trained by Shug McGaughey who has faced off against the best turf females in the country for the past year, and Laughing, who ran away with the Grade 1 Diana Stakes on July 27 at Saratoga, leaving Centre Court 3 1/2 lengths behind in fifth.

Since the Diana defeat, Centre Court has had two workouts, both on the Saratoga grass. Both were sharp. She drilled five furlongs in 59.78 on Aug. 8, then came back to run four furlongs in 48.13 on Aug. 16.

In the Diana, Centre Court abandoned her usual stalking style to run up early on Laughing after the Alan Goldberg-trained mare loped through the first six furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:12.53.

“Alan’s mare still had a real good quarter in her, and we just couldn’t get past her,” Arnold said.

Laughing drew the 1 hole in the Ballston Spa, inside of Pianist, another speedball who runs best when loose on the lead. Centre Court has post 4, just inside of Hungry Island.

While Centre Court has been up in Saratoga since the start of the meet, Hungry Island has been down south at Fair Hill training center in Maryland, enjoying a two-month break after falling to the top-class filly Stephanie’s Kitten in two straight graded turf races, the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on May 4 and the Just a Game at Belmont on June 8.

McGaughey said Hungry Island needed a break from the track. She has worked four times over the Tapeta artificial surface since arriving at Fair Hill, and she has been given daily turnouts in a grass paddock at the training center, McGaughey said, along with regular gallops over the surface.

“She’s a very, very aggressive filly,” McGaughey said. “As aggressive as any I’ve ever had. And it seems like she’s been able to work some of that out down there.”

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Miz Ida, winner of the Grade 3 Mint Julep Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 8, will start from the 3 hole under Shaun Bridgmohan. Somali Lemonade, who would probably prefer heavy rains in the lead-up to the race, starts from post 6 under Joel Rosario, whose timing in turf races is uncanny. Hard Not to Like and Embarr, two outsiders, fill the outside posts.