07/30/2009 11:00PM

Taking it one race at a time with Zensational


DEL MAR, Calif. - Zensational, the crack 3-year-old sprinter trained by Bob Baffert, will be favored to win his second consecutive Grade 1 in the $300,000 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar next Saturday.

The six-furlong Crosby may not be Zensational's only start at Del Mar. The $300,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes over seven furlongs will be run on Sept. 6 and remains an option. The Grade 1 O'Brien is the same day as the $1 million Pacific Classic, an afternoon when there will be ample national attention on Del Mar.

Baffert would not commit to the Pat O'Brien on Friday morning while watching his horses work at Del Mar.

"The Bing is the focus," Baffert said. "If I want to run in the other, I'll let him tell me."

Baffert considers Zensational to be a top candidate for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 7. Owned by Zayat Stable, Zensational has won 3 of 5 starts and $249,300.

After failing around two turns earlier this year, Zensational has thrived in sprints, winning an optional claimer at Hollywood Park on May 29 and the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap there in his first start against older horses on July 5.

"His race at Hollywood was impressive," Baffert said of the Triple Bend.

The Bing Crosby is one of two Grade 1 stakes next weekend, preceding Sunday's feature race, the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Stakes. Zenyatta, the champion older female of 2008, will be heavily favored to stretch her unbeaten streak to 12 in the Hirsch.

Field size up - for now

The size of the average field at Del Mar has increased slightly in the first seven days of the current meeting compared with last year, but the track's director of racing, Tom Robbins, said there are signs that those figures will be difficult to maintain.

Through Thursday, the seventh day of the 37-day meeting, fields averaged 8.52 starters in 64 races. Through the same time period last year, the track averaged 8.13 starters in 68 races.

One significant difference between the two seasons is the absence of Monday racing this year. The track has eliminated Monday racing with the exception of Labor Day as a way to preserve the horse population. At the same time, additional races are being offered on most days to offset the reduced number of racing days.

Robbins expressed concern on Thursday that there are fewer allowance-class horses to fill races, which could affect quality. For Sunday's 10-race program, there are two maiden-claiming races and two maiden-special-weight races.

"We've slowed up a little in spots," Robbins said. "I think we've run a lot of horses. Now the question going into week 3 is how are we going to do?"

Robbins said historically the third week of the meeting "is a little tougher."

"By going to five days, that may give us more participation than we've had," he said.

Sunday's program drew 97 horses for 10 races, although five of them are on the also-eligible list. Two allowance races drew poorly, with five and six entrants.

Halpern reflects on his tenure

Ed Halpern will end 10 years of employment as the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers at the end of the year. Earlier this week, he said he will not seek a contract renewal.

Most of his work was behind the scenes, dealing with backstretch issues facing trainers. But during 2002 and 2003, Halpern was at the forefront of a financial crisis when trainers were hit with escalating workers' compensation costs.

Halpern and other racing executives formed a collective workers' compensation program that helped lower costs and keep some stables from leaving the state or the sport. Earlier this week, he considered the development of that program to be one of his finest achievements.

Halpern said that "$10 to $11 million a year in cash is paid in subsidies and starter fees" to owners and trainers to offset those costs.

In addition, he cited the development of the Edwin Gregson Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of backstretch employees, as another achievement during his decade of involvement.

"This job gives you ample opportunity to affect a lot of people," Halpern said.

Halpern, 67, said he will pursue other opportunities, including an existing real estate business, when his term expires. He may continue to train a small stable.

"I've been fortunate to have a number or careers," said Halpern. "I've done this for 10 years, and it's a good time to change again."

* Johnny Eves, the winner of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes in 2007 and two other stakes, has returned to training after being sidelined with a suspensory injury.

Johnny Eves worked three furlongs in 33.80 seconds at Del Mar on Thursday. Trainer Jay Robbins said Johnny Eves is likely to return in the $100,000 California Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Oct. 3.