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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Small Fields Are One Bad Feature of Feature Races

October 07, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

The small fields that weaken racing cards on an all-too-regular basis show no signs of disappearing, not even for several major stakes in California and New York this weekend. Santa Anita and Belmont Park are throwing pre-Breeders' Cup parties, and in many cases hardly anybody wants to come.

The shortage of horses is so dire at Belmont that Saturday's $250,000 Beldame Stakes, which was first run when "Gone With the Wind" was a new movie, drew only five starters and three betting interests, forcing the track to run the race as a betless exhibition. The last time a stake was run without betting in New York was in 1988.

Belmont is offering five other stakes Saturday, with all six totaling $2.5 million in purses, yet the $250,000 Frizette, for 2-year-old fillies, is another five-horse field.

At Santa Anita this weekend, three of the Oak Tree Racing Assn.'s most prestigious stakes may draw only 13 horses. Five are entered in the $200,000 Oak Leaf on Saturday, five are expected for Sunday's $200,000 Norfolk and there are only three definite starters for the $300,000 Oak Tree Invitational, which is also on Sunday's card.

Smaller foal crops, too many racing dates and a proliferation of stakes races have made filling races more difficult for racing secretaries everywhere. Two California 2-year-olds, On Target and Comstock Queen, are running at Belmont this weekend. And instead of running the champion Phone Chatter in the $100,000 Lady's Secret Handicap at Santa Anita on Monday, trainer Richard Mandella will ship his filly to Kentucky for the $300,000 Spinster at Keeneland on Oct. 16.

The Jockey Club, which collects data on horse birth rates, estimates that 32,200 horses will be foaled in the United States this year. That could be the lowest total since 1978 and is 13,000 fewer than the total 10 years ago.

At least nine horses will runn in Saturday's richest race, the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, which will have horse-of-the-year ramifications if trainers Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito are reading the Eclipse Awards voters accurately.

There is a groundswell of opinion that Holy Bull has already clinched the national title, even though he is through for the year. But Lukas, who trains Tabasco Cat, and Zito, the conditioner of Go For Gin, feel that the voters must consider their horses if one of them sweeps the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup. Go For Gin won this year's Kentucky Derby and Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the other Triple Crown races.

Neither of the 3-year-olds is favored in Saturday's 1 1/4-mile race. The morning line has the 5-year-old Devil His Due at 8-5, even though he has won only three of nine starts this year and is three for 13 lifetime at Belmont. In his last two starts, Devil His Due lost by five lengths to Holy Bull in the Woodward at Belmont and was a nose short of Colonial Affair at the wire of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

Tabasco Cat is the second choice at 5-2, followed by Go For Gin and Colonial Affair, both at 5-1. Others running are Jacksonport, Pistols And Roses, West By West, Kissin Kris and Flag Down, a French runner who will be racing on dirt for the first time.

Lukas could have a big day. His 2-year-old filly, Flanders, is a 2-5 favorite to win the Frizette, and he is high on Timber Country, who will be thrown in against favored Montreal Red and On Target in the $500,000 Champagne, which drew 11 horses, the largest stakes field on the Belmont card.

Lukas might have scored a behind-the-scenes victory earlier this week with Flanders, who tested positive for a prohibited medication, one sometimes used to treat horses with foot problems, after winning the Matron at Belmont on Sept. 17.

New York racing authorities disqualified Flanders and took away her $67,000 purse, but Lukas sent a split urine sample to an independent laboratory, which he says found no trace of the drug. In California, a negative split sample means the case is dropped, but it was unclear Thursday whether New York would treat the Flanders case the same way. Attempts to reach members of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board were unsuccessful.

Also at stake for Lukas is whether he receives a suspension of 45 or 60 days.

Heavenly Prize and Educated Risk give trainer Shug McGaughey a heavily favored entry in the Beldame. McGaughey won five of the six races, a national record, on Breeders' Cup preview day a year ago, but with only three starters in two races, he will have to settle for less on Saturday. His brilliant grass horse, Lure, who has won the last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Mile, will try to repeat in the one-mile Kelso Handicap. Lure will carry 128 pounds for the first time, spotting six opponents seven to 22 pounds.

In the $500,000 Turf Classic at Belmont, Royal Mountain Inn, who beat Flag Down by half a length in the Man o' War last month, is favored over six rivals that include Fraise and Alex The Great.

At Santa Anita in Saturday's Oak Leaf, Call Now, running around two turns for the first time, is favored against four other fillies, including How So Oiseau and Serena's Song, who couldn't beat her in the Del Mar Debutante a month ago. The other starters are Main Slew and Mama Mucci.

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