`County' wins General George by nose

Favorite Don Six falters near end of Grade II race

Horse Racing

February 22, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Mike Luzzi blurted out the whole story after dismounting Don Six in the $200,000 General George Handicap yesterday at Laurel Park: "That was a good horse race."

Indeed it was. Don Six, perhaps the fastest six-furlong horse in the country, led every stride of the seven-furlong race - except the last one. Saratoga County, who never lost sight of Don Six despite trailing by five lengths, prevailed by a nose in a thrilling finish.

Scott Lake, trainer of Don Six, joined his jockey in celebration of the race as a sporting spectacle.

"I thought he ran phenomenal," Lake said of Don Six. "George Weaver's horse ran fantastic. It's a shame one of them had to get beat."

Weaver, 34, a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher, saddled Saratoga County for his biggest win in 2 1/2 years of training on his own. This was Weaver's first Grade II victory. He has won three Grade III races - two with Saratoga County (this race and the Gotham Stakes) and one with Christine's Outlaw (the Poker Handicap).

Saratoga County, a 4-year-old son of Valid Expectations, likely will get his next chance in the Grade I Carter Handicap in April at Aqueduct. He might be a top-grade horse now that Weaver has discovered what he believes is the key to the colt's recent success. After winning just twice in his first 13 races, Saratoga County, currently stabled in Florida, has won three straight.

"He's always been a lazy horse," Weaver said, beginning the tale.

Usually, with a lazy horse, you train him in the mornings with another horse, hoping his competitiveness will overcome his laziness. That's what Weaver did - until he encountered the exhausted horse after a November race at Keeneland. Saratoga County had finished a distant second in a race he was supposed to have won, but still, he was breathing heavily.

"I was a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth," Weaver said. "It was like he'd run the Kentucky Derby when all he'd done was run seven-eighths [of a mile] in a field where he was the favorite."

Weaver decided then and there to change training methods, because, he reasoned, Saratoga County wasn't fit. Instead of sending the colt out with a companion in the morning, he started sending him out alone and telling his rider to get after him. Saratoga County started training faster and getting fitter - and getting better.

When Don Six blitzed into the lead in the General George, Saratoga County had enough speed to keep him within range. Don Six, a 5-year-old son of Wild Escapade, zipped through a quarter mile in 22.33 seconds and a half mile in 44.97 seconds. He entered the turn five lengths ahead of four horses chasing side-by-side (Saratoga County, Gators N Bears, Taste of Paradise and Private Horde).

Around the turn, Saratoga County left his companions behind and launched his single-minded pursuit of Don Six. He gradually got closer down the stretch until it looked as if he'd stroll on by, but Don Six dug in and nearly held on.

Javier Castellano, Saratoga County's jockey, whipped the colt twice left-handed to move him away from Don Six, who was on the rail, and then smacked him seven times right-handed. Castellano said he feared that if Saratoga County, tending toward laziness, got too close to Don Six, he might be content to run alongside.

"When I hit him right-handed," Castellano said, "he took off."

Saratoga County completed the seven furlongs in 1 minute, 23.43 seconds. He not only nipped Don Six at the wire but also held off the charging Gators N Bears, the local favorite, who settled for third, a mere half length behind.

NOTE: Howard Wolfendale, the Laurel trainer, won his 1,000th race when Warison captured the second race. Wolfendale, 48, saddled his first winner in 1977, also at Laurel.

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