Friday, August 7, 2009

Can Einstein's 'will to win' overcome jinx?

Marcus Hersh, Daily Racing Form

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Helen Pitts spoke cheerfully enough - even if she really didn't want to talk. Sure, Pitts could speak for days on the merits and characteristics of Einstein, the best horse in her stable. But Pitts is feeling reticent this week.

"Couldn't you talk to Clement or to Mott or something?" Pitts wanted to know, reached by phone Wednesday. "I don't want the hex on me."

Pitts has reason to be gun-shy. Einstein was the focus of attention in the June 13 Stephen Foster Handicap but finished third after a brutal trip probably cost him victory. And last year in the Arlington Million, Einstein's luck ran little better: He stumbled at the start, raced wide around the far turn, and checked in fifth, beaten three lengths.

Pitts was hoping to fly in under the radar this week, but good luck with that. Einstein is one of the more accomplished and versatile horses of recent years, and where he goes attention is sure to follow.

En route from drying-out Churchill Downs to Arlington by van on Wednesday, Einstein was made the morning-line second choice to Gio Ponti for this year's Million, in which he will be attempting to win for the third time in 2009. In March, Einstein won the Santa Anita Handicap over synthetic going. In May, he won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic over wet turf at Churchill.

Much more is possible the second half of the season. Should things go well at Arlington this weekend, Einstein probably would be pointed to the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Pitts said. And looking farther into the calendar, a run at the Breeders' Cup Classic also is entirely possible.

"He loves that track at Santa Anita," Pitts said.

Pitts has been with Einstein since his first start and still regularly exercises the horse herself. Einstein's age reads as 7 in your Daily Racing Form, but he was born on Southern Hemisphere time in Brazil and foaled in October. The late birth date meant that Einstein remained a fairly immature horses when he began his career in 2005 at Keeneland. He finished fifth in his career debut but won second time out, and by winter 2006 he had truly figured out the game. When Einstein won the Gradeo1 Gulfstream Park Handicap in his sixth career start and stakes debut, Pitts realized she had a rare talent on her hands. Now, Einstein has won 11 of 26 starts and $2.6 million, with victories over dry dirt and wet, synthetic, and all kinds of turf courses.

"He's special," Pitts said. "There are so many horses that have talent that don't have the heart. I think it's hard to get this in a horse, and he just has so much will to win."

Einstein missed one day of training because of the torrential rain at Churchill, but Pitts is in no way worried about that. His major work already was done, and Einstein will get a couple days of training at Arlington.

All that's left is to run down speedy Presious Passion, outfinish top-class Gio Ponti, and avoid that dreaded hex.

Hansen makes graded stakes debut

Andy Hansen worked 16 years as an assistant to prominent Chicago trainer Gene Cilio, who had a fair number of stakes horses during his long career. But not even when he was with Cilio did Hansen dip a toe in a Grade 1 race, and during his own tenure as a head trainer, Hansen has never started a horses in a graded stakes of any sort. But out of the blue this summer came the 3-year-old Quite a Handful, who has landed Hansen in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes on Saturday.

Quite a Handful was okay at age 2 and improved late last fall when Hansen stretched him out to routes. But his form shot forward in June when Hansen tried him on turf.

"On the grass, he's a totally different horse," said Hansen, a genial native of Omaha, Neb. "He's easier to handle; he's pretty much push-button."

Quite a Handful finished powerfully at odds of 17-1 when he won a first-level allowance race here almost two months ago in his turf debut. In the $211,000 Oliver Stakes over the Indiana Downs grass course, Quite a Handful had to await room twice, Hansen said, and finished strongly for a close second, giving Hansen ample reason to take a shot in a prestigious race at his home track.

"He's going to be 20-1, so it's not like all eyes are on us," Hansen said. "But I'm really excited, because he's doing so well. It couldn't be a better time to try him in something like this, because he's never been training better."

* What were you doing 10 years ago this week? One thing you weren't doing: making plans to attend the Arlington Million.

Although time has seemed to fade those bleak memories, Arlington was dark throughout the 1998 and 1999 seasons, primarily because of disputes with Illinois legislators over financial parameters governing the sport. Accordingly, all three International Festival of Racing were not run those two years, with their listed histories conspicuously skipping from 1997 to 2000.

* HRTV began its comprehensive onsite coverage of the Festival events Wednesday and will continue through race day, with Caton Bredar, Gary Stevens, and Jill Byrne providing news updates and analysis.

ESPN will have live coverage of the Million and Beverly D. on a 90-minute Saturday show that starts at 3:30 p.m. Central. Joe Tessitore and Randy Moss will lead the broadcast team.

* Arlington will offer $300,000 guarantees on several of its Saturday pools: the all-Festival pick three (races 7-9) and the trifecta pools on the Million and Secretariat, with the trifecta guarantees being contingent on the races maintaining a minimum of nine starters. The Beverly D., with just eight entries, is excluded from the trifecta guarantee.

* The Racetrack Chaplaincy of America is holding a silent auction Friday morning from 8-10 a.m. on the racetrack apron during a special presentation of "Breakfast at Arlington," hosted by John G. Dooley. Many top retired jockeys will be on hand.

* A one-hour "Dining With the Dynasty" autograph session with top retired jockeys is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Friday in the paddock area. Two more sessions also will be held Saturday.

* Alan Shuback of Daily Racing Form will be on hand Friday to sign copies of his book "Global Racing."

* A "mystery mutuel voucher" giveaway will be held for the first 2,500 fans here Saturday. Gates open at 10 a.m.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee

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