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BELMONT NOTES

Some Growing Pains Didn't Stop Birdstone

June 06, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — At his Belmont Park barn Tuesday, trainer Nick Zito was bemoaning how small a horse Birdstone was.

"Between his 2-year-old and 3-year-old years, he got longer, but otherwise he never grew," Zito said. "If he had a [bigger] body, he'd be a very good horse. It's a shame. Going from 2 to 3 can be a terrible thing, but it happens to a lot of horses."

Birdstone might not weigh 1,000 pounds, but he's what Smarty Jones isn't, a Belmont Stakes winner.

"He's small," Zito said Saturday, "but he has an awful big heart."

Birdstone was still on the fence for the Belmont until he worked six furlongs in 1:15 1/5 at Saratoga a week ago Saturday.

It was John Hendrickson, Marylou Whitney's husband, who suggested that their mare, Dear Birdie, be bred to Grindstone, the 1996 Kentucky Derby winner. The result of the mating was Birdstone.

"When I saw him work last Saturday, I was so impressed," said Whitney, whose annual parties during the summer Saratoga race meet are legend. "Nick has developed him into a different type horse. He's developed him into a runner who can run or can stay a distance, and that's a hard thing to do."

Zito, 56, has won the Kentucky Derby twice, with Strike The Gold in 1991 and Go For Gin in 1994.

He won the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze. Grindstone was injured in that year's Derby and retired a few days after the race.

Zito said that Birdstone's next race would be the Travers in August at Saratoga.

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California horses did well in other stakes on the Belmont card. Meteor Storm, trained by Wally Dollase and ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., won the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap, beating Millennium Dragon by 1 1/4 lengths, and Bear Fan, ridden by John Velazquez for trainer Wesley Ward, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.46, a track record, to win the $150,000 Vagrancy Handicap by nine lengths.

Meteor Storm notched his third straight win.

"I didn't know how good he was," Dollase said. "You don't know until you meet Eastern horses. I was worried they might be faster than him, but I knew they wouldn't beat him on stamina. I would like to get him invited to the Melbourne Cup, but there are a lot of races between now and then."

Meteor Storm paid $14. Stroll, the favorite, finished sixth. Favored Bear Fan's season began at Santa Anita, and Saturday's win was her fourth straight, including one at Belmont on May 9. The 5-year-old mare paid $3.50.

"She's had some problems with her feet, but we've been able to train her real well over the last couple of weeks," Ward said. "Her last workout was explosive. She's been just jumping out of her skin since then."

In other stakes here, Speightstown, also ridden by Velazquez, won the $210,830 True North Handicap, with Pohave, a Hollywood Park invader, running third; Intercontinental, whose U.S. career began at Santa Anita with trainer Bobby Frankel, won the $250,000 Just A Game Handicap; Fire Slam won the $200,000 Riva Ridge, and Board Elligible won the $70,000 White Carnation.

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