09/09/2007 11:00PM

Summer of 2007 in the books

EmailA traveling horseplayer's final look at Saratoga and Del Mar for 2007:

Majestic Warrior's victory in the seven-furlong Hopeful stakes over Todd Pletcher's speedy Ready's Image and Bob Baffert's impressive Maimonides strongly suggests that trainer Bill Mott will be a player in next year's Triple Crown chase.

A well-proportioned, long-striding son of A.P. Indy, Majestic Warrior is the best 2-year-old bred for a classic distance Mott has ever had in his care.

Todd Pletcher's relatively ordinary meet was spiked by a few highlights that mere mortal trainers would be celebrating for a decade.

As in:

* Lawyer Ron's two powerful victories in the bookend stakes for older horses (The $750,000 Whitney on July 28 and the $500,000 Woodward, Sept. 1) in which he looked the part of the probable betting favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic (over Street Sense and Lawyer Ron's stablemate Any Given Saturday).

* Wait a While's return to top form with her victory in the $200,000 Ballston Spa at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, Aug. 23.

* The victory by Ready's Image in the $150,000 Sanford stakes.

But then again, Mott's 27 victories at the meet more than doubled Pletcher's 13 and were spiked by Majestic Warrior's win in the $250,000 Hopeful, My Typhoon's victory in the $500,000 Diana, and Sharp Susan's score in the $150,000 Lake Placid.

But if we really look deeper at Saratoga's top training performances, we won't find Carl Nafzger's name among the top 20, but he won three of the most important races of the meet with the two stars in his stable.

Street Sense won the $500,000 Jim Dandy stakes as a prelude to his victory in the $1 million Travers, Aug. 25, providing horseplayers and horseman with still another textbook illustration on how to prepare a top horse for a winning performance in a major target race.

Nafzger turned in a similarly impressive piece of skilled horsemanship with Lady Joanne's victory at a generous 9-2 payoff in the $750,000 Alabama stakes, Aug. 18. Very few trainers in Saratoga history have been so precise with so few horses.

Jockey Cornelio Velasquez was a revelation at this meet, winning 44 races, edging Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux by one in a spirited meet-long, seesaw battle. Velasquez won for a long list of trainers, sometimes at huge payoffs, and came to Belmont with renewed confidence that produced a handful of wins on the opening weekend.

Trainer Bob Baffert also had an excellent Saratoga, even though he arrived late and did not start many horses. Baffert not only won a maiden race impressively with Maimonides, he also unveiled another fast 2-year-old in J Be K, won the $150,000 Adirondack stakes with Del Mar maiden winner More Happy, and took the prestigious $250,000 Forego stakes with a freakishly fast performance by Del Mar shipper Midnight Lute.

There also was Linda Rice, who had 13 victories from 55 starters to finish in the four-way tie for second with Pletcher (115 starters), Gary Contessa (149 starters), and Dick Dutrow Jr. (51 starters). Pletcher certainly had his ups and downs and was a money-burner at the windows for players expecting him to live up to his recent run of Saratoga training titles.

Lost in the shuffle of his 13 victories, Contessa lost a staggering 136 races, and Dutrow's price-getting value was well below that of Rice, who was uncanny with her turf sprinters all meet.

Many of Rice's turf sprinters were ideally suited to the five- and 5 1/2-furlong distances for Saratoga turf sprints and now will face completely different circumstances when they attempt to win at a higher level of competition going six or seven furlongs on the Belmont turf. Her early results at Belmont should be quite revealing.

On the other coast, 20 year old Michael Baze won the meet title in a virtual runaway, but the ride of the meet went to Garret Gomez aboard Georgie Boy in the tightly contested $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on the Polytrack. Gomez flew in to ride the colt as a special favor for a longtime friend, trainer Kathy Walsh.

Taking Georgie Boy from last to first - which went against the colt's previous performance profile as a stalker who lacked a serious stretch kick - Gomez rallied around and between horses, but waited patiently behind the six horses in front of him before sending Georgie Boy through a seam about 150 yards from the wire. While other horses in the field had somewhat unlucky trips - most notably the second-place finisher Salute the Sarge - it was Gomez's inspired handling that made the crucial difference in a race that found six horses within two lengths of the winner at the wire.

The 1-2 finish by Georgie Boy and Salute the Sarge reversed the finish of those two youngsters in the Best Pal stakes three weeks earlier.

Speaking of Polytrack, track officials and some trainers were effusive in their praise for the new surface, citing a modest increase in field size and a boost in overall wagering. But most of all they were proud of a reduction in the catastrophic breakdown rate, which was the motive to install a synthetic surface under mandate by the California Horse Racing Board. According to Del Mar's official records, there were 11 horses euthanized on the main dirt track last year, compared with six on the Polytrack in 2007.

That, however, was only one side of the story: It was a meet-long diet of exceedingly slow final times that bothered a large group of trainers and many experienced horseplayers.

As best stated by Bob Baffert, who shipped his top 2-year-olds to Saratoga early in the Del Mar meet, Polytrack was "completely different in the morning to train over, compared to the way the track played during racing hours. The difference was so dramatic," Baffert added, "that it was impossible to judge the fitness and ability of your horse."

Other trainers also reported that many horses incurred minor back injures and hindquarter problems, in part because of the way the shallow, powdery upper crust of the synthetic surface gave way under the weight of Thoroughbreds kicking forward for traction with their hind legs.

Some Del Mar officials conceded privately that the complaints had merit, and the track's president, Joe Harper, publicly admitted that an evaluation of Polytrack has begun for the express purpose of implementing changes that will improve things for 2008.

When trying to make sense of Polytrack performances as the horses show up in races elsewhere, I for one will treat Polytrack races as having contributed to a horse's overall conditioning while disregarding actual finishing positions when comparing one horse against another.

Perhaps the conditioning gained at Del Mar will result in improved performances at Fairplex Park (dirt) and/or Santa Anita and Hollywood on their Cushion Track surfaces, but that is the only consequence I will expect to stand up until proven otherwise.

California and other racing jurisdictions that have rushed into the synthetic track era in the name of horse safety, owe it to themselves, to the horses, jockeys, trainers, horse owners and horseplayers, to do everything possible to make these tracks safe and consistent.