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Trainers: Dave Litfin's Top 25
Steve Asmussen was last year's Eclipse Award-winning trainer on the strength of a record 622 victories (shattering his previous mark of 555 wins in 2004), and a second straight Horse of the Year title with Curlin.
While Curlin's Woodward win on the final Saturday of the Saratoga meet was one of the high points last summer, eight of Asmussen's 10 winners were juveniles. He was particularly dangerous with second-time starters early at the meet, winning with four of them during the first two weeks, including Jardin ($26.40) in the Schuylerville on opening day and Warm Country ($25.80) in a New York-bred maiden race.
The exploits of Jardin and Warm Country notwithstanding, the vast majority of winners from this barn will be solidly supported at the windows and needn't show a flashy set of bullet works.
Typically, Asmussen-trained horses record a published workout nine days after they run, usually a half-mile. When they don't, it's a tipoff something could be amiss.
Bet against Asmussen's turf horses with reckless abandon.
Scott Blasi filled in while Asmussen was serving a suspension in 2006. In July, Asmussen was given a six-month suspension for a lidocaine positive (a Class 2 medication violation) at Lone Star Park in May of 2008. He has appealed the ban.
The winner of three straight Eclipse Awards from 1997-99, Bob Baffert will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
Whatever horses he brings along with him to Saratoga are seriously meant, and this is especially true when they are solidly backed at the windows. Over the past three summers Baffert-trained favorites have won seven of nine starts, a 77.7 percent success rate that makes them highly efficient stand-alones in multi-race exotics.
The 56-year-old Baffert has three Kentucky Derby wins, and this year ran second with Pioneerof the Nile, but during the summer his main focus is developing young sprinters. In 2007, he unveiled the juveniles J Be K, who won his debut in track-record time and went on to win multiple stakes at 3, and Indian Blessing, that year's champion juvenile filly and last year's Test winner at 2-5 en route to an Eclipse as the top female sprinter of 2008.
Baffert also saddled eventual sprint champion Midnight Lute to win the Forego Handicap as part of a 5-for-10 summer in 2007. Including the Test, Baffert went 4 for 10 last year, a record that included wins with first-time starters Heavenly Vision ($9.40) and Miss Bodine ($3.00), and Under Serviced ($3.80) in a statebred allowance sprint.
Insofar as workouts are concerned, with Baffert what you see is what you get: his fast horses work fast.
After serving apprenticeships with Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel, Chad Brown hung up his shingle in the fall of 2007 and saddled his first winner, Dual Jewels, a few weeks before his 29th birthday.
Brown grew up in the nearby town of Niskayuna, N.Y., so it's no wonder he seemed right at home at Saratoga during his first full year out on his own. From 18 starters he sent out six winners, three on the main track and three in turf routes.
Among the grass winners was Maram ($17), who won her debut for $75,000 maiden claiming and went on to take the Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita.
A knee issue and a popped splint bone ("It's been little things here and there," Brown said) kept Maram out of training until late May, but Brown is looking to have her geared up for the Lake George (July 31) and Lake Placid (Aug. 21).
Following a runner-up finish in the Shadwell Metropolitan Handicap for Florida-based trainer Bennie Stutts, Smooth Air was left in New York and transferred to Brown, who is pointing him to the Whitney (Aug. 8).
If the first five months of 2009 are an indication, expect Brown to have another good meet. Through the first five months of the year he was 19 for 81, including a record of 5-3-1 from his first dozen starters at Belmont's spring-summer meet.
After three straight years with at least seven winners at Saratoga, including a 9-for-40 mark in 2006, and a flat bet profit of $26.10 on a 7-for-34 record in 2007, Christophe Clement slumped to 3 for 37 in 2008.
Among the trio, Cable ($4.10) in an allowance turf route, and Akilina ($4.90) in a maiden special weight sprint were paltry prices; but Beckham Bend ($25.80) lit up the tote board to continue a long-standing Clement strength - first-time starters on turf at a mile or longer. Clement's ROI with such types is $5.13 over the past three years; his five-year return is even higher when you factor in French Dressing ($38.60), who got believers out for the summer on Labor Day 2004.
Born into a training family in Paris, Clement worked for top European trainer Luca Cumani before coming to New York in the fall of 1991. Since then, his horses have won well over 200 stakes and amassed more than $60 million in earnings. Though it seems he's been around forever, he won't turn 44 until the fall.
With Clement, the accent is on distaffers. Though he has developed solid male stakes horses such as Forbidden Apple, Relaxed Gesture, and With the Flow, and more recently the Grade 1 winner Gio Ponti, the list of graded stakes-winning fillies and mares is considerably longer and includes Beverly D. winners Royal Highness and Mauralakana, and Saratoga stakes winners Danish, Voodoo Dancer, Rumpipumpy, Rutherienne, Seducer's Song, Spotlight, and Naissance Royale.
The leading trainer in New York each of the last three years, Gary Contessa sent out 151 winners in 2006; established a new state single-season record of 159 winners in 2007, breaking Pancho Martin's 33-year-old mark of 156; and reached the 150 plateau again in 2008.
Contessa was in a four-way tie for second with 13 winners at the 2007 meet, with a healthy average win mutuel of $21.70. Though nine winners last year only tied him for eighth in the standings, the average win price of $18 ranked highest among the top 12 trainers.
The key to playing Contessa's horses at the Spa is to get a price. His favorites are 4 for 41 with an ROI of $0.51 the past three years, including a record of 1 for 13 last year.
Contessa-trained horses don't often win on grass, but pay handsomely when they do. Mission Approved ($70) wired the 2007 Saranac, and though Contessa was just 1 for 36 on the grass last summer, Quick Comeback ($85.50) wired a restricted claimer to keep Contessa's turf ROI in the black at $2.41 for the past three years.
Contessa is most dangerous with new acquisitions, winning at 26 percent with a $2.34 ROI through a 17-month period starting at the beginning of 2008, including French Song ($30.60) first time off a claim at Saratoga.
It's a long way from his hometown of Tipperary to Saratoga Springs, but David Duggan definitely had the luck o' the Irish behind him last summer. After sending out five winners at Belmont's spring-summer meet, Duggan celebrated his 40th birthday during the summer at the Spa by sending out six winners from 19 starters.
"It was a breakout kind of meet for me," Duggan said. "I had a smile on my face you couldn't get off if you tried to chisel it off. Things just hit a roll. The horses were doing well at the right time, they had conditions, and we got a little lucky, there's no two ways about it."
In yet another example of an overnight success story that was 15 years in the making, Duggan spent two years on the Southern California circuit as an assistant for Neil Drysdale in the early 1990s, before coming to New York to work for John Kimmel and then for Eoin Harty, during which time he helped to develop multiple stakes winners Successful Appeal and Street Cry.
Last summer, it was plainly apparent that Duggan knows his way around a good horse, even if bettors didn't know quite what to make of him: Cagey Girl won a second-level turf allowance at $47.60 and came right back to pay $47 in the Mollie Wilmot Stakes. Porte Bonheur won the Flanders Stakes at $17, and then posted a $24.60 upset in the Grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes on Travers Day.
Duggan's two other winners, Indian Delight ($11.20) and Lyke a Hurricane ($26.60), also paid well.
His younger brother Rick may have grabbed all the headlines with Big Brown, but their totals for 2008 were remarkably similar:
Rick: 173-124-98 from 709 starters
Tony: 176-139-108 from 712 starters
A higher portion of Tony Dutrow's winners come outside the NYRA circuit: he started only 260 horses in New York last year, compared to Rick's 443.
But bettors seldom if ever underestimate his horses at Saratoga. Though his average winner paid a measly $5.90 last year, the lowest total among the top dozen trainers, his 35 percent winners on dirt (7 for 20) was tops among the leaders.
Dutrow has been more of a presence at Saratoga each of the past few seasons. After running just three horses in 2005, he went 3 for 23 the following year; 6 for 34 in 2007; and 8 for 26 overall in 2008.
Dutrow's lone winner on grass last year was the sprinter Redefined ($6.40). He won off-the-turf sprints with Abby Morgan ($9.40), Fancy Diamond ($5.10), and Ferocious Fires ($3.80) in the Troy. Ferocious Fires also won the John Morrissey Stakes at $4.40.
Overall, since the start of 2008, Dutrow has won at 30 percent or better first time off the claim; with layoffs of six months or more; and with newly blinkered runners.
Richard Dutrow Jr.
Rick Dutrow saddled 102 winners in New York last year (the seventh straight year he hit the century mark) and has finished in the top three in New York nine consecutive years, including three training titles. One has to wonder, though, whether Dutrow would trade all those winners for a do-over with 3-year-old champion Big Brown in last year's Belmont Stakes.
Despite being preoccupied with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner much of the year, Dutrow also won the Maker's Mark Mile with Kip Deville and the Suburban with Frost Giant, and guided Benny the Bull through a 4-for-4 campaign that earned him the Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.
Dutrow has been among the most consistent and reliable big-name trainers the past several years at the Spa. Since 2005, he has posted records of 16 for 47; 12 for 57; 13 for 51; and 13 for 56, which was good for third in the standings last year.
Dutrow is batting nearly .500 with favorites (19 for 39) the past three years, including a mark of 8 for 14 in 2008. His best prices last summer came with Acai ($26.20), who won a first-level allowance route after a maiden win downstate; Salute the Count ($20.80) in the Quick Call, an overnight turf sprint stakes; and Precious Package ($12.60), a second-time-starting juvenile who improved substantially off his debut at Monmouth Park.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, two years after winning his first Eclipse Award, and long before he won four consecutive Eclipses (2000-03), Brooklyn-born Bobby Frankel has compiled a body of work that ranks him among the greatest trainers of all-time. He won a staggering 25 Grade 1 races in 2003, a record that still stands, and led all trainers with 13 Grade 1 wins last year.
Four of those Grade 1 wins came at Saratoga, and contributed to a third-place finish in the standings. Stronach Stables' Ginger Punch, the top older female of 2007 and one of nine Eclipse champions developed by Frankel, was odds-on in winning both the Go for Wand and the Personal Ensign. But the Juddmonte Farms' homebred First Defence ($17.60) was overlooked in the Forego, and so was Hopeful winner Vineyard Haven ($20.40), who had been purchased by Frankel after his debut win at Calder and was later sold to Godolphin Racing after taking the Champagne Stakes.
Layoffs are a positive. Ariege ($6.70) won the Madame Jumel, a one-mile overnight stakes on turf, in her first out since winning the Beaumont in April; Country Star ($3.80) also won a mile turf route first out since the Kentucky Oaks. Pretty Carina, a 3-year-old filly who hadn't been out since November, romped by better than seven lengths in a maiden special weight.
The son of legendary Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, Jimmy Jerkens has had a fine career in his own right since saddling his first winner, Ninth Inning, back in 1997. His most important winners have been Artie Schiller in the Breeders' Cup Mile and Corinthian in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Jerkens was unconscious at Saratoga in 2005 when he saddled 11 winners from a mere 28 starters, but the racing gods haven't been as benevolent since then. He suffered through a
1-for-21 meet the following summer; went 3 for 18 in 2007; and sent out just two winners from 23 starters last year.
Both winners were homebreds from Edward P. Evans: Casanova Move ($4.80), and first-time starter Storm Play ($26.40), who went on to win an overnight stakes in the fall.
More recently, Jerkens won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby with Quality Road for Evans. That fast colt was derailed from the Triple Crown races by quarter cracks, and was just getting back to a regular training schedule in late spring. Jerkens and Evans recently parted ways and Quality Road is now in Todd Pletcher's barn.
Though she didn't win at Saratoga last summer, the Jerkens-trained Doremifasollatido ran well for second in the Spinaway behind Mani Bhavan and went on to win the Grade 2 Matron to become champion New York-bred juvenile filly of 2008.
Though John Kimmel isn't winning as many races nowadays as when he was New York's leading trainer in 1999, he remains equally adept in just about any situation. Moreover, good value is easily obtained on Kimmel-trained horses, which have tossed flat-bet profits on turf and dirt, short and long the past three years at Saratoga.
Premium Tap ($64) provided a good example, winning the Woodward in 2006. Last year, Kimmel was ice cold for most of the meet, with layoff claiming sprinter Chief Talkeetna ($6.20) his only winner through the first five weeks. Suddenly, however, the streaky Kimmel caught fire and sent out seven consecutive winners during the last four days of the meet, before the streak finally ended with Break Water Edison's fourth-place finish in the Hopeful.
A theoretical $2 win parlay on Doughdaddy ($4.70), Close Encounter ($9.40), Timber Reserve ($7.40), Freedom Bay ($20.20), Remarkable Remy ($17.20), Gem for Hook ($4.90), and Premium Gold ($25.60) would have brought back $222,630.
A native New Yorker, Bruce Levine played the horses as a teenager and broke in soon afterward under the tutelage of Johnny Campo, who ran one of the circuit's most powerful stables in the mid-1970s. He saddled his first winner in 1979, and last year won his first Grade 1 with the New York-bred sprinter Bustin Stones in the Carter Handicap.
Indeed, 2008 ranked as the best season yet for Levine, who was the second-leading trainer in New York with 104 wins, and won the title at Monmouth Park as well.
Levine wins at upwards of 30 percent with new acquisitions and layoff horses, and was especially effective with sprinters in the latter category at the Spa last year. Driven by Success ($4.40), the pacesetter and eventual third-place finisher in this year's Met Mile, won a statebred maiden sprint first out since February, and came right back to win a first-level allowance by 15 lengths; Elope ($12.80) won an allowance by 11 lengths first out in 11 months; and Real Estate ($5.50) survived a vicious pace duel to win an allowance first out since early May.
Ken Ramsey set out to be leading owner at Saratoga last year, and achieved that goal (12 winners) in large part because of Mike Maker, who saddled eight winners from just 25 starters, at average odds of better than 4-1.
Stable intention tip: Ramsey requires his trainers to maintain a 20 percent win average and he is a betting owner, so multi-level class dropdowns at boutique meets such as Saratoga are usually well meant.
Though Ridge Royale ($13.40) won a maiden-claiming turf sprint, Maker was winless with 11 other sprinters. He won with seven of 13 routers on turf and dirt, however, including Skills Coach ($27) and Stealth Missile ($16.80).
The son of Michigan-based trainer George Maker, Mike broke in on the Hazel Park-Detroit Race Course circuit by walking hots for his father on weekends. His skills were honed working as an exercise rider, barn foreman, and assistant trainer for D. Wayne Lukas. Before going out on his own, he helped develop the likes of Charismatic, Cat Thief, Orientate, and Thunder Gulch, among many others.
Shug McGaughey signed on as trainer for the Ogden Phipps Stable in the fall of 1985, shortly after winning the Washington D.C. International with Vanlandingham in the horse's turf debut. His unprecedented five stakes wins at Belmont Park on Oct. 16, 1993, included four in the Phipps black silks and cherry cap: Miner's Mark in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Heavenly Prize in the Frizette, Dispute in the Beldame, and Strolling Along in the Lawrence Realization.
All told, McGaughey has developed seven Eclipse champions for the Phipps Stable, highlighted by the 13-for-13 Personal Ensign and 11-time stakes winner Easy Goer. Last year, he won maiden special weight sprints on dirt with Phipps 2-year-olds Gone Astray ($11.20) and Persistently ($9.90), both second-time starters, and a turf sprint with first-time starter Consequence ($14.80), a stakes winner this spring at Arlington Park.
McGaughey's other main owner is Stuart Janney, for whom he developed 1998 Travers winner Coronado's Quest and last year won turf routes with Carriage Trail ($8.60) in the De La Rose Stakes, and Minister's Joy ($14.60) off a layoff in a classified allowance.
Kiaran McLaughlin was fourth overall in the New York trainer standings with 94 wins last year, including his first Saratoga title with 17 winners. They were divided almost equally between turf (9 for 24) and dirt (8 for 38), and included a pair of stakes winners for Shadwell Stable - Abraaj ($5.40) in the A.G. Vanderbilt, and Shakis ($14.80), who as an 8-year-old won his second straight Bernard Baruch.
McLaughlin has a way with older geldings like Shakis, and the following angle may come into play this summer as it did on several occasions last year: When he drops aging geldings sharply in class for Shadwell and Zabeel Racing, they get the money, regardless of recent activity. Caesar Beware won multiple $35,000 turf sprints off the move at Belmont and Saratoga in '08, and Encinas ($11.80) and Stream of Gold ($3.60) fit the profile upstate.
In the end, though, it was debut sprint wins by 2-year-olds Charitable Man ($9.20), Girolamo ($4.30), Regal Ransom ($4.10), Majestic Blue ($8.40), and Reread the Footnotes ($5) that put the stable over the top.
H. Graham Motion
Graham Motion worked for Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard for five years before going out on his own, so it's little wonder he has developed a reputation for a deft hand at developing and maintaining turf routers; witness the incredibly classy and durable runner Better Talk Now, who won the Breeders' Cup Turf in 2004 and is still in training for the native of Cambridge, England.
After winning seven turf races at Saratoga in 2007, including the Glens Falls Handicap with Rosinka and the Troy with T. D. Vance, Motion had a relatively quiet summer last year, capturing off-the-turf races at seven furlongs with Easy to Say No ($11) and Silver Reunion ($10.80) as well as a turf allowance with Exonerated ($7).
If Motion leaves a horse in when a race is rained off the turf, it's a sign of positive intent. Overall since the start of 2008, Motion's highest win rate, other than maiden special to maiden claiming (27 percent), is on wet tracks (26 percent).
Bill Mott, at 45 the youngest trainer ever voted into the Hall of Fame, won or shared eight Saratoga crowns from 1992-2001. At age 54, the two-time Eclipse Award winner enjoyed a renaissance of sorts to win the 2007 title with 27 winners, more than twice as many as his nearest pursuers.
But the racing gods giveth and the racing gods taketh away, and the native of South Dakota suffered through a 4-for-72 summer in 2008. All four came on turf in maiden or allowance events, most notably the maiden route winners Mr. Sidney ($11.60), who won a maiden route off a five-month layoff, and Pioneerof the Nile ($8.40).
Earlier this year, Mr. Sidney won the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland for Mott. Pioneerof the Nile was sent out to Southern California for Zayat Stable's nationwide operation, and won four straight stakes for Bob Baffert before running second in the Kentucky Derby.
Though he is a household name among horseplayers, Mott still throws profits with dirt-to-turf runners, both overall and at Saratoga in particular.
Todd Pletcher, the Eclipse Award winner four straight years from 2004-07 and a six-time Saratoga titlist, needs no introduction.
Even though 2008 was a rebuilding period for the stable due to the simultaneous retirements of champions Rags to Riches, Lawyer Ron, and English Channel, Pletcher still won 208 races and over $13.7 million in purses, slightly more than half his record total of $26.8 million in 2006.
Despite having a solid year overall in 2007 that included victories by Lawyer Ron in the Whitney and Woodward, Pletcher had an extremely frustrating Saratoga when he battled through a 0-for-30 streak and a 3-for-47 performance with
2-year-olds. He bounced back with a second-place finish in 2008, thanks primarily to winning twice as many races on turf (10 for 50) as on dirt (5 for 53). Among the turf winners were Red Giant ($10.60) in the Fourstardave first out since the previous October, Wait a While ($3.70) in the Ballston Spa, and Bittel Road in the With Anticipation.
Formerly the Queen of Turf Sprints, Linda Rice ascended to Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler at Saratoga last year after sending out the first four finishers in the $83,250 Mechanicville Stakes, three of which were fillies. Ahvee's Destiny ($20.60) crossed the wire first in the 5 1/2-furlong dash on the Mellon course, followed by 12-1 Canadian Ballet, 7-2 Silver Timber, and 17-1 Karakorum Electra. The all-Rice superfecta paid $3,490 to anyone who has been paying attention since turf sprints became a staple of racing programs in New York.
"I'm superstitious," said Rice after the feat. "I don't bet."
For those who do, consider linking uncoupled Rice-trained turf sprinters in exotics, or making win-and-place bets on coupled entries, for the Mechanicville was hardly an isolated incident. When the Rice-trained Lady Rizzi ($9.30) won in a course record 1:00.66, the runner-up was Myakka, also trained by her. Frozen Prospect ($7.60) and mate American Cruiser also finished one-two at the meet.
Rice wins dirt sprints, too, including with two first-time starters for Obviously NY Stable last summer, Mother Russia ($11.40) and Saturdaynitesandy ($10.80).
Saeed bin Suroor
Ever since Saeed bin Suroor traded in his Dubai police badge for a training license in 1994, he has helped to develop, along with U.S. assistant Rick Mettee, a long list of important stakes winners for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing, including Eclipse champions Daylami, Fantastic Light, and Tempera.
Perhaps their fastest horse was Discreet Cat, who in 2005 was purchased after winning his debut at Saratoga as a 2-year-old for Stanley Hough, and a year later won the Jerome at Belmont Park and the Cigar Mile in track-record-equaling time.
The stable won five races at Saratoga in 2007 and matched that total last year, highlighted by overnight stakes wins with Cocoa Beach ($3.20) and Zada Belle.
Slightly better value was to be found in the allowance ranks with National Pride ($8.10), Hatta Fort ($7.40), and Numaany ($7.10).
Overall in the U.S. since the start of 2008, Suroor-trained runners have won at virtually identical rates sprinting and routing, and dirt horses have won at a strong 35 percent clip. First-time Lasix horses have been profitable, and especially so at the Spa.
From dirt sprints to three-turn marathons on turf, former steeplechase rider Barclay Tagg is as solid an all-around horseman as you'll find. And though America at large first heard his name when the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2003, the 71-year-old native of Lancaster, Pa., had been a mainstay in New York and on the Mid-Atlantic circuit for well over three decades. Among his standout stakes runners were Miss Josh, Royal Mountain Inn, and 2003 Alabama winner Island Fashion.
Tagg had a strong meet in 2008, saddling 10 winners from 42 starters, including triumphs in turf stakes with My Princess Jess ($6.10) in the Lake George; Doc N Roll ($7.30) in the Cab Calloway division of the New York Stallion Series; and Summer Patriot ($8.20), who won the 13-furlong John's Call following an 11-furlong allowance win earlier at the meet.
Tagg also won the John's Call in 2006 with Auguri.
Short layoffs (31-60 days) have been a longtime strength for Tagg.
Richard Violette Jr.
In the inaugural edition of Saratoga Trainer Stats, handicappers were advised to respect Rick Violette-trained first-time starters, because he had compiled a positive ROI ($2.02) with new shooters. Apparently, the word was out on Cribnote ($3.90), a New York-bred by Read the Footnotes who won by better than 13 lengths on the first Sunday, and came back to run second in the Hopeful despite bearing out badly.
But later in the meet, Mona From Deltona ($15.60) slipped through the cracks, and eked out a photo-finish win when unveiled in a $50,000 maiden claimer.
Focusing on Violette's firsters has paid dividends at all tracks since the start of 2008, producing a 3.01 ROI at this writing. Other profitable categories include dirt to turf, sprint to route, and 2-year-olds overall. Favorites have been consistently reliable.
Dream Rush won the Grade 1 Test Stakes for Violette at the 2007 meet, and he trained Read the Footnotes to win the Remsen and Nashua at 2 and the Fountain of Youth at 3.
Last year, in his first full summer at the Spa, Ward posted a 10-for-28 record that was good for a tie for fifth in the standings, and included turf sprint wins from Indian Ashton ($4.10), August Rush ($11), Easy Ashley ($9.20), and Intuition Magic ($13).
Ward was 6 for 13 on turf overall, with Osceola Princess ($14.80) and Fancy Footsteps ($9.60) winning one-mile claiming races.
Fiumes ($19.40) was the price topper in an off-the-turf restricted claiming sprint.
Overall since the start of 2008, Ward has racked up some impressive stats with turf-to-dirt runners (19 for 57).
George Weaver, a native of Louisville, Ky., started out as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, and moved on to work with Todd Pletcher for six years before going out on his own in the fall of 2002.
Weaver has produced flat-bet profits at Saratoga each of the last three years, thanks to winners like Indian Hawke ($42) in the 2006 Albany; Find the Chestnut ($21) in 2007; and Unflagging, who paid $62.50 for a debut victory last year and returned later at the meet to win a first-level allowance at $17.20.
Weaver also garnered victories at double-digit mutuels with Miss Challenge ($19.60) in a turf allowance, and Manitoba Miss ($13.20) in an off-the-turf maiden special weight.
Unflagging, in fact, is solely responsible for Weaver's 2.31 ROI with firsters, as the 38-year-old conditioner is winless with 26 other newcomers in the past three years. Second-time starters, however, often improve leaps and bounds.
Nick Zito-trained first-time starters were automatic throw-outs for years. But the New York native has changed with the times ever since Commentator won his Saratoga debut, well, because he's Commentator!
It is a testament to Zito's expertise that Commentator knocked off eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam in the 2005 Whitney Handicap, and returned to win the race last year for a second time at the age of 7. In retrospect, his $10.80 payoff as the lone speed qualified as one of the biggest overlays of the summer.
Zito, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2005, was deadly with first-time starters here in 2006, winning with six juvenile sprinters right out of the box; in 2007, he took the wraps off eventual champion War Pass ($15.80) on the first Saturday of the meet. Last year, his only debut winner was Miss Ocean City ($12.20).
Zito's long-standing Achilles' heel is grass. He is 0 for 16 on Spa turf the past three years, and at this writing was 0 for 21 overall on grass since the start of 2008.