08/04/2011 4:22PM

Switch gets another shot for her due


Welcome to the Del Mar digs of the most under-appreciated racehorse in North America.

She lives in stall 12A of Barn GG, a corner room thickly bedded with golden straw and hard by the barn breezeway. Her view includes a wash rack and a lonely, malnourished bottle brush tree. The walls of her stall are composed of vintage adobe bricks originally laid in 1937. The tooth-raked dutch door of her stall is tied open with blue twine.

To the left of the door two power cords spill from an outlet, one of them leading to a radio sitting on a bucket and playing Mexican pop, the other snaking up over the shed row rafter beams and winding down to a top-load Admiral washing machine secured by a combination padlock. On the stall door next to the power outlet there is a strip of gray duct tape upon which is printed, in black marking pen, the name of the most under-appreciated racehorse in North America.

How else could Switch be described? Do the math, and it keeps coming out the same. If Blind Luck and Havre de Grace are to be considered the two best racehorses in the land – and this is not a minority opinion – then what do you do with the filly who came within a half-length of beating Blind Luck in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park in June and before that came within three-quarters of a length of beating Havre de Grace in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, at level weights?

Okay, somebody had to be second. But this particular somebody is the same filly who dominated back-to-back Grade 1 races at seven furlongs last winter at Santa Anita. The same filly who chased hard at the heels of Dubai Majesty in the seven-furlong Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint last November at Churchill Downs. And the same filly, getting just three pounds, who gave Zenyatta’s roaring multitudes a true fright last October in the 8 1/2-furlong Lady’s Secret at Hollywood Park, when the difference was a half-length at the line.

The pattern, and the knock, is that Switch can’t beat a top horse going two turns. When she did, in the 2010 Hollywood Oaks, she was getting 10 pounds from Blind Luck, so that one gets an asterisk. Otherwise, all she seems to be able to do is scare the good ones to death.

On Saturday at Del Mar, Switch will get another chance to stand alone in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, going 1 1/16 miles. Her win over the same route and ground in the restricted Torrey Pines at Del Mar last summer at least erases a couple of minor question marks, although Switch has handled a variety of dirt and synthetics with equal aplomb. Those who think she is vulnerable can select from a variety of choices, including such older, accomplished mares as St Trinians and Ultra Blend as well as Switch’s 3-year-old stablemate, the budding star Zazu. Those who do not can sit back and enjoy the show.

Such thoughts were interrupted at the approach of Victor Carpio, Switch’s groom, whose mere footfall prompted the filly to poke her head over the webbing. She got the attention she deserved.

“She gets a few of these little scratches from the walls,” said Carpio, almost apologetically noting minor flaws in what was otherwise a beautiful face. “But she’s very happy here.”

Switch dropped her head at the sound of her groom’s voice, disregarding the stranger. Carpio took the opportunity to twirl her forelock.

“Look at this,” he said. “It’s curly all by itself. I don’t do anything to it at all.”

Carpio pulled out a comb and gave Switch a touch-up. Switch purred.

“Maybe I should have been a barber," Carpio cracked.

Lee and Susan Searing, who race as the CRK Stable, bought Switch for $150,000 as a yearling. Her trainer is John Sadler, who can’t walk by Switch without sharing a carrot. And her jockey, for nine of her 15 starts, has been Joel Rosario, who was aboard for her maiden win in December 2009 at Hollywood Park.

It has been Carpio, though, in Switch’s stall from the beginning, and Carpio who revels in her maturity from a slight 3-year-old into the more mature filly who will go to the post Saturday.

“She’s eating more, putting on weight, taller, bigger – the muscles showing more,” he said. “I love that.”

Of course, the last person to ask if they like their chances is a groom. There is no more prejudiced player in the mix. It is the work of the groom, however, that sets the whole process in motion, and the most successful trainers have the most skilled, diligent grooms on the grounds. They miss nothing.

Carpio, 27, is a native of Escuintla, Guatemala, who has worked for Sadler seven years. Broad-shouldered and flat-bellied with a neatly shaven head and gold earring, he could pass for the younger, taller, more talkative brother of Alex Solis.

“When she sees me open the webbing to go in and pack her feet, she comes right to me,” Carpio noted. “I never tie her up to rub her, because she don’t like to be tied up and she doesn’t need it. She likes everybody – except the exercise riders. Every time she sees somebody walk close to her with a helmet, she goes for him. You could walk by, nothing. You put on a helmet, look out.”

Among the horses Carpio has handled for Sadler was Sidney’s Candy, who was recently sold to WinStar Farm and made a smashing debut for Todd Pletcher by winning the Fourstardave at Saratoga. Carpio watched the race with decidedly mixed emotions.

“He was my baby,” Carpio said. “I had him since he came to the barn. The people who bought him told John they were gonna take the groom, too. I said if they take Switch, I might be going. But Switch was not for sale, so I stay with her.”