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Horse racing’s second season looking for another star

The second season of racing for 3-year-olds swings into high gear this weekend with the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Too bad all the stars aren’t around anymore.

While both races feature competitive fields, the winners of the Triple Crown races are retired, and the next-best horse is recovering from a fever.

Is there another standout waiting in starting gate?

“With I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister and Union Rags not being around, that leaves the door open for one of them,” says Michael Matz, who trained Union Rags, the Belmont Stakes winner, and will send out Teeth of the Dog in the Jim Dandy today.

The Triple Crown grind took a toll on the top talent. Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was retired the day before the Belmont because of a leg injury, followed a few weeks later by Union Rags’ retirement due to injury. Preakness runner-up Bodemeister, meanwhile, was training for the Haskell but a fever put him on the shelf, and he’s recouping before his next start.

And as Matz says, there just may be a rising star ready to step up.

In the Jim Dandy, Derby also-ran Alpha is the slight 5-2 favorite in a field of eight, while Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s Paynter is the 3-2 choice in a six-horse field for the Haskell on Sunday.

Baffert finished second in each of the Triple Crown races – Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness, Paynter in the Belmont – and now has a chance for a Jim Dandy- Haskell double. He will send out Liaison in the Jim Dandy as the 7-2 third choice.

Baffert is staying home in California this weekend, so it’s the job of assistant Jimmy Barnes to have Paynter ready to give his boss a third straight Haskell win and a record sixth overall.

“I’m just happy to have a horse fit enough to run, and be the favorite,” said Baffert, who won the Haskell with Coil last year, and with Lookin At Lucky in 2010.

His key to success at the Jersey Shore track?

“You have to go to Max’s Hot Dogs and have a hot dog for lunch. It usually works,” said Baffert of the near-the-track joint that’s been dishing out dogs for more than 80 years.

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