08/09/2007 11:00PM

Spa jockey's race a tight one


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In addition to the West Point Handicap, in which a long, familiar cast of characters knock heads for about the 75th time, and a folding-chair giveaway, the third Sunday of the meet is also National Football League Alumni Day at the Spa.

That seems only fitting because, as with the NFL, parity has come to the local riding colony. Angel Cordero Jr. was "The King of Saratoga" in the 1980s; Jerry Bailey reigned through most of the 1990s; and for the past five summers the line of succession has been a tug of war between Edgar Prado and John Velazquez.

But with 14 of 36 racing days completed, it was Kent Desormeaux who topped the standings with 14 wins - one more than Prado and Velazquez, and two more than Javier Castellano, Cornelio Velasquez, and Garrett Gomez in what's shaping up to be a wild race.

Desormeaux gained momentum with a solid meet at Belmont, particularly on turf, and has ridden the coattails of some upstart by the name of Bill Mott, who had a 10-7 lead in the trainer standings over Todd Pletcher heading into Friday's card.

Just two wins separate the top six, but oddly enough the leading rider on the main track wasn't any of them - it was Rafael Bejarano, who had won with 9 of 42 mounts on dirt, including a front-running theft of the Honorable Miss Handicap with Burmilla, but was winless from 27 rides on turf.

Inside draw proves unlucky

At Saratoga, horseplayers often get the feeling there are mysterious forces at work. This year's unexplainable oddity is that inside posts in routes on dirt and turf have been the kiss of death. There have been no discernible lane biases, and under normal conditions, inside horses obviously benefit by saving ground in the run to the first turn. And yet, horses breaking from the two inside posts at 1 1/8 miles on the main track started off a combined 0 for 30, while posts 8 through 10 went 5 for 18.

It's been a similar story on both turf courses, where the two inside posts have gone 2 for 76, while posts 8 through 10 went 10 for 95.

Go figure.

Idea of lane bias doesn't hold up

Speaking of lane biases, some observers thought the outside was the place to be on the main track Whitney day. That doesn't explain Private Lap ($11), who turned back multiple challenges on the rail and prevailed in a four-horse photo; or War Pass ($15.80), who dueled on the rail and drew off to win his debut; or Attila's Storm, who dueled Commentator into defeat while on the rail and held second at 13-1 in the A.G. Vanderbilt; or Wanderin Boy, who set the pace inside and held second in the Whitney as the longest shot on the board.

Pletcher back-ups figure strong

Lawyer Ron won the Whitney in track-record time, Any Given Saturday ran away and hid in the Haskell, and Ready's Image looms as the Hopeful favorite off a dominating performance in the Sanford. Yet, Todd Pletcher would probably be the first to tell you he envisioned a more productive summer.

Even though Rags to Riches is very likely to skip the Alabama, Pletcher's incredible depth with 3-year-old fillies still gives him a big chance with Octave and Panty Raid. Those two may not have the press clippings that accrue to a Belmont Stakes winner, but they are lunch-pail types who bring it every time and earn respect the good old-fashioned way. Octave has never been worse than second while campaigned at the highest level. Panty Raid has won her last three - an allowance on Polytrack at Keeneland, the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan on conventional dirt at Pimlico, and the Grade 1 American Oaks on turf at Hollywood Park.

Pletcher winless with debuters on dirt

It all began for Panty Raid at Saratoga last year, when she was Pletcher's only winning first-time starter on dirt. So far at this meet, the best result among Pletcher's seven first-time starters in dirt sprints was a runner-up finish by Ready's Echo, who was officially 25 lengths off the early pace in Wednesday's sixth race, the second (and slower) division won by the Mott-trained Z Humor.

Ready's Echo made up a lot of ground while angling out through the stretch, but even so, he received a Beyer Speed Figure of only 57 in a performance reminiscent of Scipion's local bow in 2004. Scipion also trailed by a country mile and got up to win his seven-furlong debut with a visually impressive late rush, but received a Beyer of only 65. Now a 5-year-old, his only win from 16 subsequent starts was the Grade 3 Risen Star 2 1/2 years ago.