07/26/2008 12:00AM

Wet turf course major factor in Diana


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The rain that pummeled Saratoga the first two days of the meet here left the grass course looking gorgeous. Unused, but gorgeous. And the likelihood that the surface will be closer to soft than firm on Saturday has made uncertain the likely starting field, and final result, of the Grade 1, $500,000 Diana. It drew a field of

10 female turf runners, but could be impacted severely by the recent rain.

Wait a While, who has not raced since January, has repeatedly demonstrated her dislike for anything but firm footing, so her status as a starter is questionable. Vacare has won on a yielding course, but her trainer, Christophe Clement, would much prefer to run both her and Rutherienne on firmer ground.

“I’ll worry about it Saturday morning,” Clement said.

By contrast, Bit of Whimsy and particularly Criminologist are effective with some give in the ground. As much as current form, pace, and tactics play into this race, the ground could be paramount.

“Our filly likes it soft,” said Robin Smullen, the assistant to Bit of Whimsy’s trainer, Barclay Tagg.

The Diana, at 1 1/8 miles, offers the winner an automatic starting berth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf through the Win and You’re In program.

Both Bit of Whimsy and Criminologist are coming off disappointing performances in the Grade 1 Just a Game at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day, but the conditions will be radically different this time. Both get an additional furlong with which to work, a softer course, and less-stifling heat.

Bit of Whimsy wound up sixth in the Just a Game, but was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths after getting fanned wide into the lane.

“I thought she was in the perfect position on the turn, but then she ended up six wide,” Smullen said. “I think she’s coming into this race very well. She had a hard time with the heat last time. After the race, we had to keep her on the walk.”

Eibar Coa will ride Bit of Whimsy for the first time.

Criminologist finished seventh in the Just a Game, but she won 5 of her 6 previous starts, including a runaway victory on a yielding course in Belmont’s Athenia Handicap last fall.

“I don’t know exactly what happened to her last time,” said her trainer, Shug McGaughey. “It wasn’t the best of trips, and a mile’s not her best distance, but she dropped the bit at the three-eighths, and she was sluggish in the paddock. She just didn’t finish up the way she usually does. I think we can be a little more patient with her going a mile and an eighth instead of a mile.”

Vacare was eighth in the Just a Game in her first start in eight months. If Clement is not satisfied with the course, he could re-route Vacare to Del Mar for the Grade 1 John Mabee Handicap on Aug. 3. Vacare’s owners, Jon and Sarah Kelly, live in Rancho Santa Fe, near Del Mar.

Rutherienne never threatened when third as the odds-on favorite on good ground in the All Along Breeders’ Cup at Colonial on June 21.

“The going was much softer than I expected,” Clement said. “She didn’t have quite the same turn of foot on that ground.”

Lady Digby upset Rutherienne in the All Along. This will be her first time in a Grade 1 race.

Dynaforce comes off a terrific effort in the 1 1/4-mile New York Stakes in her United States debut, which was her first start in

10 months. She won three times on soft ground in France.

The speedy Bayou’s Lassie is likely better at one mile, but she did win on good ground at Churchill Downs in the Distaff Turf Mile. She was fourth in the Just a Game.

Forever Together was a fast-finishing third in the Just a Game.

– additional reporting

by David Grening