07/18/2012 2:08PM

Saratoga: Nihei targets breakthrough at Spa

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Michelle Nihei has 15 horses at Saratoga and another 18 at Belmont Park.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – As a former assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher, Michelle Nihei knows a little something about winning races at Saratoga.

In the three summers she has spent here since going out on her own, however, success has not come readily for the 42-year-old Canadian-born trainer. That could change this year.

Nihei has brought 15 horses to Saratoga and has another 18 stabled at Belmont Park as she tries to establish some New York roots.

While Nihei won’t challenge her former boss for leading trainer at this meet – which kicks off Friday – she is one of a handful of trainers that you could find making several trips to the winner’s circle this meet.

“We’re coming into this meet with a superior product of stock,” Nihei said. “We’ve got new owners and horses on board that look like they’re going to be very competitive in this arena. I like what we have very much.”

Nihei hopes to get off to a fast start in Friday’s opener, when she sends out Artest in an allowance race on turf. Artest, a 3-year-old formerly trained by Richard Dutrow Jr. who has won sprinting on turf, tries a two-turn mile for the first time.

“I don’t know him as a 2-year-old, I only know him as a 3-year-old,” Nihei said. “He definitely wants to go two turns; he’s a really nice grass horse.”

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Nihei has stakes-caliber grass horses in Upgrade, who won the Grade 3 Jaipur at Belmont, and Regalo Mia, a stakes-placed filly who had to be scratched from the American Oaks at Betfair Hollywood Park after developing a temperature following her cross-country plane trip.

The Grade 1 winner Prince Will I Am has not run since the 2011 Manhattan due to some lameness issues. He had his first work back here Sunday and could see action at the end of the meet.

Nihei has some 2-year-olds, including Draw Two, who broke slowly but rallied to finish third in his debut Sunday at Belmont, and Our Kashmir, a son of Half Ours. Collaborator, a New York-bred who had trouble in his debut, also will start up here.

Donnatale, a 3-year-old filly who won first out but finished last next out for Nihei, is gearing up for a return.

◗ Mark Casse: Profiled in this spot last year, Casse won two races from 20 starters. Norm Casse, who oversees his father’s New York string, believes the stable was the victim of some bad trips and bad luck last year.

The Casses are back with 24 horses this year. “I think we have much better horses than we ever had before, and that’s going to make a difference,” Norm Casse said.

The Casses will look to make a big splash Saturday by sending out Funny Proposition in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks.

She trained sensationally here last summer, according to Casse, but was scratched from the Adirondack Stakes due to an illness. She finished eighth in the Grade 3 Regret on turf, but is 2 for 2 on dirt.

“We didn’t want to run on the turf in the Regret, but it was the only race we could get for her around two turns,” Casse said.

Casse has a trio of 3-year-olds that could run at this meet, including Ohio Derby winner Prospective, Dynamical, and Stealcase.

Among the 2-year-olds the Casses are high on are Sky Captain, a 10 1/4-length winner July 1 at Churchill; Sky Commander, who finished seventh in his debut after breaking poorly; and Exploring, a son of Sky Mesa who is entered to run Saturday.

Other notable runners for Casse include Lockout and Silver Rock.

◗ Nick Canani: Third in the Gulfstream Park standings, Canani is rebuilding his stable after parting ways with owner Frank Calabrese.

He has 10 stalls here this summer and has brought six horses thus far with more on the way. He also plans to be active at the claim box.

Sumo, a horse Canani won with at Belmont, is entered as a main track only for Friday. Sumo and Kitten’s Kid, a maiden winner over this turf course last summer for Merrill Scherer, are owned by Danny Gargan, who works as Canani’s assistant.

Canani has picked up horses for owner Marc Ferrell, who had some success a few years ago transferring horses from the West Coast to the East Coast and trainer Mike Hushion.

The 3-year-old Called to Serve won two straight before finishing sixth in the Swaps last out. He could be possible for the Curlin or Jim Dandy.

Los Ojitos has a second and a third from three starts. Canani also recently got in a Northern Afleet 2-year-old colt who could run late in the meet.

“If you want to be anywhere, you have to be here in New York,” Canani said. “The purses really warrant being here.”

◗ Wayne Catalano: A successful trainer in south Florida and on the Kentucky and Chicago circuits, Catalano will take his talents to the Adirondack region for the first time. He has brought 20 horses here, led by Grade 1 winner Stephanie’s Kitten, who will run in Wednesday’s Grade 2, $200,000 Lake George Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Major Gain, a stakes-winning 2-year-old of 2010, will likely return to the dirt at some point this meet. He was beaten a half-length in the 2010 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill and has run just once in 18 months.

Thermal Cat, who earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure in his debut at Hawthorne but has disappointed in two starts since, will likely run at this meet.

Closerwalk, a son of Street Sense, should be competitive in a second-level allowance race.

Catalano, who has won two Breeders’ Cup juvenile races in his career, will send out the 2-year-old filly Oscar Party, a half-sister to Major Gain, in Friday’s third race.

Another 2-year-old of note is Hotter N Blazes.