John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Saratoga Diary Prep: Spa Off to Blazing Start

Dear Diary,

I know you’re anxious to celebrate your 40th anniversary—yes, since 1977—but it can’t be a real diary unless you’re there. I will be, but first some matters on the home front that need my attention.

So, let’s call this the inaugural Simulcast Edition of Saratoga Diary, and that’s a good thing, too. No distractions like dinner plans, cocktails, visiting with old friends, favorite places. What remains is what happened between the fences.

I might not have been there but over 64,000 people were the first two days of Saratoga-148. Those are wow numbers, or as TJ was saying in the Gulfstream press box about Friday’s opening; that’s almost Travers-like.

Unlike Del Mar’s disappointing start, Saratoga opened on a roll with all-sources handle up 14% to $20.3 million on opening day. Saturday’s numbers were just as strong: $24.9 million from all sources.

Off the top, the headlines are: What’s with the main-track surface? Consecutive-years fast start for Kiaran McLaughlin. The Ortiz Brothers Show. And wait, there’s more:

Chad Brown, Bobblehead of Renown with a Saturday trifecta. Slow starts for Hall of Famers, Javier and Johnny V. The Greatness of Lady Eli. And what’s up with the Todd Two-Year-Olds?

FRIDAY JUL 21: Opening Day. It was clear from the jump, the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” for mid-level claimers, that the amount of kickback on the first turn was extraordinary. Can you say cuppy track?

Well, if you waited for the third race under similar conditions, but for better horses, can you say dead track, too? Fifty-two to the half; one-seventeen to the quarters; a mile and an eighth in one-fifty-five plus, are you kidding?

Roller, harrows and water, please.

In the opener, the Ortiz Brothers put on a show as Irad the Older got the best of Jose the Younger following a truly stirring head-to-head duel from which favored Indycott got the best of River Date, with Rudy Rod going 1-2.

And score the first win for someone who has become a perennial leading owner, Michael Dubb. Boy, those NYRA Board members always have been tough to beat, right?

Race 2: Beaux Arts was very good breaking maiden in juvenile turf sprint for Russell Cash and race produces first Horse to Watch: Misty Forest, a little too hyper pre-race but was going well at the finish after a bit of a circuitous journey. Lady of Miracle put in a good, sustained run down the lane; nice race to build on.

R4: The obstreperous Takaful finally ran back to his impressive sprint debut making the dull track look exceedingly fast. He raced 6 furlongs in 1:09.89 and I swear he galloped out like 20 in front at mid-first turn.

Takaful just never stopped running and was the first of Kiaran MLaughlin's double. Chad Brown’s Patternrecognition went well late and is sure to be odds-on, and a most likely winner—next out.

R5: Sagamore Farm and trainer Horacio De Paz putting it all together this season, getting it done with juvenile maiden breaker Southhampton Way under clever handling from Ricardo Santana Jr., the first of a natural double for the Midwest star.

Todd Pletcher firster Honey Glow, heavily bet from the bell, broke flat-footed, was pushed hard to keep pace on the turn, never changed leads and stopped badly. It’s one thing to get beat but…phew!

Purrfect Miss unseated Manny Franco at the gate but put in a solid rally through the stretch; note. Well backed Amazing Belle had no apparent excuse.

R6: Itsinthestars belongs in your stable mail. She cranked up with a 4-wide move at the turn, momentum carrying her 6-wde into lane. Think Javier Castellano was too aggressive, angling out early far turn, where if she stayed covered a bit longer, her game late effort might have paid dividends.

G3 SCHUYLERVILLE: Dream It is looked like a winner every step beneath Luis Contreras, who came down from Canada with trainer Barbara Minshall to get the money. Minshall had her set for dirt debut coming off the WO synth. The filly ran away through the lane despite staying on her left lead.

G3 LAKE GEORGE: As aggressive as he was earlier, Javier used perfect timing to get much-improved newly-blinkered Proctor’s Ledge home a decisive winner with a strong rally, looking like a potential repeater. Party Boat was going well late through the lane for Motion/Rosario team. Dream Dancing appeared dull and quiet in the post parade and run to her looks.

SATURDAY, JUL 22: Main track was a little quicker than opening day, but was still tiring.

R1: A two-horse race on paper turned into a romp for Mr. Crow beneath Luis Saez, getting Todd off the duck. Favorite Marshall Plan was too high pre-race, and too dull during the running; note pre-race behavior next out!

R2: Really annoyed as Voodoo Song, 9-2 pre-loading but 5-2 midway down the backside, ran off and hid from two-turn turf rivals first-time for Linda Rice on the recent retirement of trainer Mike Hushion. Note that the filly was still headstrong despite removing blinkers.

R3: Graham Motion may have a juvenile turf star in the scopey Untamed Domain. While ground saving, she was forced to check entering the turn, moved up again, then angled out gradually through the stretch and ran down Another, who got first run and was finishing well herself. Everything being equal, bet both back.

R5: Todd FTS Machismo, a $500K purchase, was bet from the bell, chased the pace from perfect outside stalking position, was pushed hard to keep up at headstretch and, like Friday’s well bet newcomer, stopped.

It’s one thing to get beat, but there’s no other word to describe these performances: embarrassing. Not Arrogate-embarrassing, but disconcerting nonetheless.

: Scooped me but I was not alone, as Firenze Fire was a double-digit ship-in for Jason Servis, who insists the colt will get added distances in the future. We assume he was thinking Hopeful and Champagne. Free Drop Billy, 15-1 ML to 3-1 fave, was a very good late-run second; follow progress.

G1 DIANA: Turf specialist or not, Lady Eli is one of the best fillies I’ve ever seen, ranking among the all-time great mares in my view. She has been the best story in racing since staring down death, as laminitis claims too many equine lives.

Lady Eli’s with a last-strides victory, improving her lifetime slate to (12) 9-3-0, finally got her Spa Grade 1, but that, too, is not the story.

A feel-good filly, she was very high pre-race, breaking out with shoulder sweat in the parade, Irad doing his best to keep her quiet. But she didn’t look like a very happy camper.

Breaking through before the start, the kiss of death for 99 of 100 horses, she settled off a moderate pace, was patiently and confidently handled, tipped 5-across the track into the lane, Irad only hand-riding vigorously.

Quidura, a very nice filly from Motion’s barn and getting eight pounds from Lady Eli, she got first run and was holding her off. But watch the replay for the picture of a horse that just refuses to lose.

She had every excuse and got the job done. I don’t throw the word great around often. In fact, I use the term “G-word” instead, but I’m making an exception here:

Lady Eli has to be great race horse to do what she’s already done. Trainer Chad Brown, a man of few words, never mind hyperbole, said: “Today she proved she's one of the all-time greats.” That she surely did.

Written by John Pricci

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