Late Breeders Cup balances
Oak Tree prepstakes

Sep 19, 2006 4:43 AM

When the Oak Tree Racing Association begins its 38th season of racing at Santa Anita on Sept. 27, for the first time in six years, its opening weekend won’t be overloaded with prep races for the Breeders’ Cup.

That’s because the 23rd Breeders’ Cup will be run on Nov. 4, its latest date since 2000, when it also was contested on Nov. 4. Since then, it was run in late October through last year. The extra week is crucial to horsemen, who prefer to give their charges at least four weeks break between races leading to racing’s greatest day. It also allows Oak Tree to present its stakes races in a more natural progression.

"This will be the first time in six years that the Breeders’ Cup is being run in November, so we didn’t have to cram our stakes races into a narrow window on opening weekend,"said Oak Tree racing secretary Rick Hammerle. "We can space it over a more normal span of weekends. Now, instead of our prep races being three and four weeks prior to the Breeders’ Cup, they’re four and five weeks out. I believe that will give our local horses an advantage in their Breeders’ Cup races."

But don’t expect too many fresh faces in the preps.

"Everything’s become so regionalized these days regarding the Breeders’ Cup," Hammerle said. "There’s not too much shipping the last month of the year. In addition to Oak Tree and California, Kentucky and New York also have Breeders’ Cup prep programs. The races throughout the country are about the same as far as distance and surface options, although the purse values are higher in some respects. But it’s the timing that counts this time of the year."

Hammerle is optimistic that the horse population will be healthy and plentiful during the 26-day meet that ends Oct. 29 and features 12 graded stakes, four of them Grade I’s.

"The three-week respite during Fairplex always helps, in particular for our turf horses, who are fresh and rested, and also our higher quality horses," Hammerle said. "The three week break from Del Mar to Oak Tree usually helps us."

John Ward has a long and storied history in racing. Born in the heart of Blue Grass country—Lexington, Ky.—on Aug. 2, 1945, he was chief operating officer of legendary Calumet Farm in the spring of 1991. His father, John T. Ward Sr., and his grandfather, John S. Ward, were prominent horsemen, as was John Sr.’s brother, Sherill, who trained three-time Horse of the Year Forego (1974-76) during the great gelding’s career.

Ward (full handle, John T. Ward Jr.) has trained on the East Coast since he began his career full time at the age of 25. His crowning achievement to date is training Monarchos to win the Kentucky Derby in 2001. Ward presently has his blue blood stable based on three fronts, although he did ship Play Ballado to Santa Anita for two stakes placings last year. He indicated he could stop at the Arcadia track for a cup of coffee again this season.

"Play Ballado will probably finish up racing in Kentucky and then be retired for breeding," Ward said. "Strong Contender (winner of the Dwyer Stakes) goes in the Super Derby on Sept. 27 at Louisiana Downs and we’ll have to see what we do with him after that.

"But we’re going to have four pretty strong handicap horses this winter and I would suspect you’ll see one of them show up in Southern California. We’ve got Dr. Pleasure, Strong Contender, Minister’s Bid and Extreme Supreme. Matter of fact, (Kent) Desormeaux rides him and when Kent won the Woodward (on Sept. 2 aboard 44-1 outsider Premium Tap), he got off of Premium Tap and asked about Extreme Supreme instead.

"We’ll race in Kentucky for the Turfway meeting, but we’ll keep a division in New York year-round now. We’ll race in Kentucky, Florida and New York, but because of the new Polytrack at Keeneland and a different clientele who will be using it, it looks like (Tex) Sutton’s planes will be flying twice as much, so you’ll be seeing trainers like (Patrick) Biancone) and us who are based in Lexington, traveling all over the country to run."

Monarchos, meanwhile, is off to an unobtrusive start as a stallion. His stud fee at Claiborne Farm is $15,000 — without a bullet.

"We sold 40 percent of Monarchos," Ward revealed. "He’s just getting a slow start. His horses want to go long and his first book or mares was kind of marginal. His 2-year-olds of this year are a lot better bred than the ones that are being sold. Right now he’s standing for $15,000 and they’ll probably drop him a little bit as an incentive. His fillies seems to be a little more precocious than the colts, but the colts will come along in time."

Monarchos won the Derby in 1:59.97, third-fastest in the race’s history, behind Secretariat and Sham, both in 1973. The first set of foals by the son of Maria’s Mon-Regal Band produced five winners, but only one, Harborage, has raced in a stakes, finishing third in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Championships.

The homestretch:

”¡ Just back from the high-powered Keeneland sale, Kiaran McLaughlin said Horse of the Year candidate Invasor remains on course for his fourth consecutive Grade I win in the Oct. 7 Jockey Club Gold Cup .

”¡ Citing her aversion to New York, former assistant Sally Schu amicably parted company with Ward and spent her summer at Arlington Park.

”¡ If my math was right, 13 of the weekend’s first 16 games in the NFL went "under." The worst performance was turned in by the Oakland Raiders, who looked completely Shell-shocked/

”¡ Prop bet to ponder: Who will be found first, Jimmy Hoffa, Osama Bin Laden or the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman?

”¡ Did you hear about the horse that was so bad he had a truck beeper as part of his equipment because he was always backing up?

”¡ This just in: A drive-thru brothel is opening, called Sin-N-Out/

”¡ Isn’t it about time Gene Shalit left the ’70s?