Saturday afternoon, however, it will be hard to overlook Rutledge Farm’s Researcher, who brings a three-race winning streak to the Big A for the 103rd running of the Grade 3, $100,000-added Queens County Handicap for three-year-olds and up at a mile and three-sixteenths on the inner dirt track.
Researcher is a 4-year-old, Virginia-bred gelded son of Two Smart who has fashioned a record of 7-3-2 from 13 starts. He has never been as sharp as he is now, however, coming off a two-month freshening to post victories in an off-the-turf mile race at Laurel, at nine furlongs at his home base at Charles Town and in Mountaineer Park’s Mountaineer Mile on a good track.
“I think there are several reasons why he is doing so good,” said trainer Jeff Runco. “We had tried him on the turf before, and he did just okay. He had some other issues, so we gave him time off. I think the rest and the return to the dirt have made a real change in him.”
The real noticeable change in Researcher has been in his Beyer Speed numbers. In his last two starts, he has fired off respective figures of 101 and 104.
“He’s a little older now and he is getting smarter, too,” Runco said. “In his last race at Mountaineer, he sat right off the lone speed (Ravalo), who wound up finishing second. It’s like he knows what he has to do.”
Researcher not only handles different tracks and different track conditions, but he also has worked well with different jockeys.
“We have been racing all over, so he gets a new jockey at every track,” Runco said.
The 49-year-old Runco, a former jockey himself, will turn over the riding duties on Saturday to an old friend, Mike Luzzi. A native of Omaha, Neb., who cut his teeth at the old Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack, Runco rode on the Mid-Atlantic circuit from 1979-’84.
In fact, Luzzi’s brother, John, who entered Thursday eight wins shy of 1,000 for his riding career, worked Researcher a half-mile on the fast track at Charles Town on December 3 in 49.20, breezing.
It took several months, but Carol Nyren’s Dry Martini finally became a graded stakes winner in New York when he won the Grade 3 Stuyvesant Handicap in the mud here on November 15.
A son of Slew Gin Fizz, he also seemed to wake up after two average tries on turf. He made up a lot of ground in the Stuyvesant, but trainer Billy Turner seemed pleased that the horse appeared to be going easy at the end.
Third in the Stuyvesant, Temporary Saint figures to head to the lead in the Queens County under jockey Eddie Castro. The 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding sports a 4-2-3 record from 10 starts this year.
Grade 2 winner Sir Whimsey debuts for trainer Steve Asmussen. The 4-year-old Jump Start colt has only one victory in six tries on Aqueduct’s inner track, but has hit the board in all but one of those tries.
Winless in three starts this year, Brilliant Son makes his inner track debut here for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The 5-year-old Stormin Fever horse may have value, as he came off a layoff to run third by a neck on the turf at Keeneland, and then “bounced” in his return to dirt in the muddy Stuyvesant, where he ran fifth.
Brilliant Son will be equipped with blinkers for the Queens County Handicap.