Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The search for the next Kentucky Derby winner winds up in strange places; was it last year that New York Magazine did a short piece on Aqueduct Racetrack, postulating therein that one was very unlikely to find a Derby winner racing there in January (and totally forgetting about Smarty Jones?)

I so distinctly remember speaking with John Servis five years ago, when he was shipping the then totally unknown Pennsylvania-bred named up from Philly Park for the Count Fleet. "It will be a test for him," said Servis. "If he passes it, we'll think about moving on to the next step." (Months later, I stood at the finish line at Belmont Park and listened to more than 100,000 screaming fans fall totally silent as Birdstone reeled in Smarty Jones in the final yards of the Belmont Stakes, cutting short the Triple Crown bid of what in my own personal opinion was the most deserving "near-miss" in recent memory.)

This year's Count Fleet, named for the Triple Crown winner who raced for the wife of John D. Hertz, founder of the rental car company, once again gives me the impetus for the old Big A longshot. Last year I was rooting for Rick Schosberg and Giant Moon, who evenutally mader it to the Preakness; this year I'll be following fellow New York-bred Haynesfield.

Will Haynesfield put Turtle Bird Stables in the driver's seat? Like Giant Moon last year, Haynesfield was coming into the Count Fleet off a flashy victory in the restricted Damon Runyon. Unlike Giant Moon, Haynesfield wound up in the Damon Runyon as a matter of coincidence; a state-bred allowance failed to fill, and trainer Steve Asmussen elected to send him into the stakes off a maiden victory.

"His last race was a pleasant surprise," Asmussen said before the Count Fleet. "His first race was a disappointment; he redeemed himself in his maiden victory and then won the Damon Runyon because the other race didn't go. It's all a process."

For Haynesfield, an attractive chestnut, the process continued as he handled the mile and 70 yards in a competent fashion, covering the distance in 1:44.65. Jockey Ramon Dominguez, who last year was out of breath from piloting the tough-to-handle Giant Moon, seemed glad he had made the decision to remain in New York, skipping a trip to warmer climes for the Hal's Hope for a shot at a step onto the Triple Crown path.

Will the victory be enough to move him up alongside the likes of Remsen winner Old Fashioned (upon whom Dominguez also has the mount) and Midshipman, Pioneerof the Nile, Square Eddie, Street Hero, Terrain or Afleet Treat? I don't know. But if it is, I will be happy to have been among those who saw him win at Aqueduct on a cold and gray January afternoon.

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