ELMONT, N.Y. -- Toby Sheets stood along the rail of the Belmont Park training track Wednesday morning watching a set of horses gallop by when he was asked how much he was looking forward to finally being able to return Haynesfield to the races, something he will do in Saturday's Grade 3, $ 100,000 Westchester Stakes at Belmont.
"I'm ready,'' Sheets, the New York-based assistant to Steve Asmussen said.
"I think so,'' Sheets said. "It's been a long six months. He's doing good.''
Haynesfield, who drew post 5, will meet five opponents in the Westchester, which is run at one mile and serves as the local stepping-stone to the prestigious Grade 1, $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap to be run here on May 30. Haynesfield, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup over subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic winner Blame last fall, has not run since finishing second by a head in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.
Because Sheets is in charge of this New York-bred's training, Haynesfield remained at Belmont Park during the winter, as opposed to going to warmer locales such as Santa Anita or Fair Grounds, where Asmussen maintained other strings. Without any plans to run Haynesfield during the winter, Sheets took his time bringing the horse back and didn't train him when he felt the track wasn't right. Sheets said he believes that due to weather the track was sometimes harder and had less cushion "which compromises any kind of small problems you had.''
Haynesfield returned to the work tab in early March, but really picked up the pace in April. Since April 10, Haynesfield has worked three quarters in 1:13.67, seven furlongs in 1:26.45, and five-eighths in 1:00.43.
"He's doing as well as he was last season when he came back,'' said Sheets, who noted last year that Haynesfield's comeback came in a New York-bred allowance, which he won by 2 1/2 lengths before winning the Grade 2 Suburban.
The Westchester came up a salty race with the likes of Soaring Empire, winner of the Grade 3 Hal's Hope at a mile, Christmas for Liam, who impressed with two allowance wins at Gulfstream, and Convocation, who finished second in this race last year. Caixa Eletronica, a recent claim by Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher, and Schoolyard Dreams complete the field.
Velasquez switches agents
Usually, jockeys switch agents if things aren't going well. Coming off winning the Aqueduct riding title, the timing would seem a little odd for Cornelio Velasquez to be making an agent change.
But beginning with the opening of Friday's Belmont Park meet, Velasquez will be represented by Matt Muzikar, who also serves as the agent for Javier Castellano. This is the first meet that the New York Racing Association allows an agent to represent two journeymen and Muzikar is the only agent, at least for now, who is doing so.
"Nothing will change,'' said Muzikar, who noted that he worked for journeymen Chris DeCarlo and Eibar Coa when both rode at Monmouth. "I think they both complement each other; they're both great riders.''
According to Muzikar, Velasquez had made the decision to switch from Brian Morgan to him shortly after NYRA announced the rules change earlier this year.
Morgan will represent Jeffrey Sanchez.
In other agent news, Mike Monroe now represents Irwin Rosendo. Junior Alvarado, who Monroe represented during Aqueduct, has returned to Chicago to ride at Arlington Park.
Hess eyes New York success
Trainer Bob Hess Jr. is one of a handful of new faces to join this circuit this spring. Also based in Southern California, Hess moved horses east last year where he maintained a stable at Monmouth Park. This winter, he raced at Gulfstream Park, winning 5 races from 21 starters. Hess said he anticipates having 22 horses at Belmont by next week.
Hess said owner Amanda Pope is a major reason why he has migrated East.
"Amanda Pope is buying the right kind of horses and breeding the right kind of horses and she wants us in Florida during the winter and New York during the summer,'' Hess said.
Among the horses Hess trains for Pope are Funny Sunny, a 3-year-old filly who won a first-level allowance at Gulfstream by 10 3/4 lengths in February, and Dreamingly, a 4-year-old daughter of Giant's Causeway who finished second in a turf maiden race on April 24 at Gulfstream.
Other horses Hess plans to have in New York include Master Cip, a New York-bred filly, and Victoria's Wildcat, who won a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream in February.