08/19/2009 12:00AM

Top level in sight for Zucker

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Benoit & Associates
Well Monied wins the Honeymoon Handicap as part of a three-race winning streak that was ended by a tough American Oaks trip.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Last summer at Del Mar, trainer Howard Zucker won four turf sprints with the fillies Queen of the Catsle and Synnin and Grinnin. This season, he's taking aim at the biggest race of the meet for 3-year-old fillies, Saturday's Grade 1, $350,000 Del Mar Oaks, in which he will send out Well Monied, the likely favorite in the 1 1/8-mile grass race. The long and short of it is this: When it comes to stakes races on the grass at Del Mar, Zucker has it covered.

In Well Monied, Zucker, 61, might very well have the best horse he has ever trained. He has operated a small, respected public stable for more than 30 years, forgoing an insurance job for the siren call of the racetrack, first on the East Coast, then, beginning in 1982, in Southern California. He has run in races like the Santa Anita Derby and the Metropolitan Handicap, but has yet to win a Grade 1 stakes race. Well Monied, who closed strongly for second in the American Oaks in her last start following three straight victories, gives him a terrific chance.

Had it not been for the combination of Gozzip Girl and a dreadful post draw, Well Monied already might be a Grade 1 winner. In the American Oaks at Hollywood Park on July 5, Well Monied was marooned in post 13 in a 14-horse field going two turns. She finished boldly, but fell 3 1/4 lengths short of Gozzip Girl.

"She was really wide. She lost all chance to win," Zucker said. "And the winner had a lovely trip. It was like Moses parted the Red Sea. I know we lost more ground than we were beat. But what could you do from the 13 hole? We couldn't gun her. There was no shot to move up to a stalking position."

Going into the American Oaks, Well Monied had reeled off victories in a Santa Anita maiden race, a Hollywood optional claimer, and the Grade 2 Honeymoon at Hollywood.

Zucker trains Well Monied for the family of the late Carl T. Grether, whose son, Arno, oversees the Grether horses in Zucker's barn. They have six of the 16 runners Zucker trains.

"They're wonderful, loyal clients," Zucker said.

Their best previous horse was Crafty C.T. - named for the family patriarch - who was second in the 2001 Santa Anita Derby and third in the 2002 Met Mile. He was brilliant from the start. By contrast, Well Monied, who lost her first three races, took a few starts to find her comfort zone, but she's there now.

"She's still growing," Zucker said while standing outside Well Monied's stall at his Del Mar barn. "She's late maturing. She's a little to the lean side. I don't think we've seen her best yet. When she fills out, she'll be a monster."

Zucker has obvious affection for his horses. He calls Well Monied, "The sweetest horse I've ever been around."

"She'll curl up with you like a puppy dog," he said. "She's very self-possessed, very together."

Zucker's interest in the welfare of horses extends far outside his shed row. He has been a high-ranking member of the California Thoroughbred Trainers; he recently left that organization's board, but only because his second term expired.

"Term limits," Zucker said.

But he will remain actively involved in the organization. In addition to his previous work on medication reform and workers' compensation issues, Zucker has become one of the circuit's most informed trainers on synthetic surfaces, examining all manner of data, and working - sometimes clashing - with track management over the way Southern California's new synthetic surfaces are maintained.

"These tracks have great, great possibilities. When they're right, they're fantastic," Zucker said. "They don't get as horrible as a dirt track that's poorly maintained. I love dirt, but now that we've jumped to synthetics, I'm a big fan. But we screwed them up everywhere when they first were installed."

In Zucker's opinion, the tracks, both before and after the synthetic revolution, have suffered not from poor material, but poor maintenance. He has high praise for Mike Young, the Keeneland trackman who has periodically come in and helped with Del Mar's Polytrack surface, and Richard Tedesco, whom Zucker says maintained an ideal track on which to train at Santa Anita when Hollywood Park was racing this spring.

"I've been at this for 30-some odd years," he said. "I felt I needed to get involved 10 to 12 years ago, when problems with the dirt tracks were mounting and getting worse. I felt like I should speak up for the horses. The horse's voice is not loud enough."