Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fake Mike Smith

Let us sing of days gone by
Blood and tears to sanctify
Freedom was a lullaby
When we made the crossing

We who stood a St. James gate
Hat in hand there with our fate
The wind was cold the risk was great
For we who made the crossing

As we turned from Hunger's door
Troubles there to bear no more
Promise waiting on the shore
For we who made the crossing

Some would rise and some would fall
Battle cry we heard the call
Liberty was after all
Why we made the crossing

Sing we of our kin and kind
All those we have left behind
Ever in our hearts and minds
We who made the crossing

So raise a glass and speak the names
All of those who braved the flames
Heaven hell it's all the same
For we who made the crossing

Lyrics by Willie Nile from his album, “American Ride”

“We’re still here,” said Matt Graves as I walked into the Saratoga press box last August. “Look around, do you recognize anybody?”

At the time he asked, I was looking around the room. It was too late for clockers but too early for scribes, there were the newly scrubbed young faces at work at their word processors. “No,” I said.

Two weeks ago Tuesday, Matt Graves checked himself into hospice. By Saturday night last, he was gone. To say that life is unfair is remarkably insipid at this or at any juncture. I’ll be 74 later this month; that would make Matt four years my junior.

He trained on the athletic fields at Ohio State University, didn’t smoke, and earned a letter in baseball as a walk-on. I trained in the student lounge at St. John’s, at the Harry M. Stevens chowder stand at Aqueduct, and was a pack-a-day man. Go figure.

History shows that Matt Graves was twice an award-winning journalist for his Kentucky Derby coverage and a four-time handicapping champion at the Saratoga race meet; no small feat that.

As you might expect they take their horse play and handicapping very seriously at Saratoga. As a young handicapper/racing columnist for Newsday, I learned just how serious the upstate newspapers were about keeping score in Saratoga.

I didn’t learn of that intensity in the press box; I learned it one night at Hattie’s Chicken Shack on Phila Street. The great handicapper and legendary tout, Manny Kalish, sent me there. He knew his fried chicken. With all the trimmings it cost eight bucks. “Value.”

Back in the day, newspapers mattered and, incredibly, by the time we left the race course and arrived at Hattie’s, young people were going around tables hawking The Pink Sheet for 50 cents.

Having race charts with pictures of the finish and a short story on the feature race for was for a young horseplayer the greatest thing ever.

The next day, the Pink Sheet wrapped-around the hometown Saratogian. The newspaper was a daily occurrence; the Pink Sheet existed only during the 24-day race meet, at a time when the horses were saddled under the elms and among the fans.

Aside from cashing a ticket, it was the best thing about the old Spa.

Alongside the tout sheets were the local newspapers being hawked outside the track entrances. Matty, of course, worked for the Albany Times Union then. It and the Schenectady Gazelle, Troy Record and the rest of the local dailies were available.

The Capital District had its share of minor league baseball and hockey teams, and quaint Saratoga Harness. The only big league sport it had was Thoroughbred racing at Saratoga. Saratoga Race Course, to this day one of America’s Top 10 sporting venues.

But the locals simply called it “the flat track” while still treating it with the reverence normally reserved for cathedrals; rightfully so. And they took picking winners very seriously, the notion of value be damned.

One year, there was a handicapper best known by his hyphenated name: Mike-Smith-Not-The-Jockey [MSNTJ]. Matt was having his characteristically good meet but the better he did, the further he fell behind MSNTJ.

The TU’s handicapper couldn’t believe what was happening and so he put his reporter skills to work. He retrieved every copy of his rival’s newspaper and, ah-ha: MSNTJ was a fraud, sometimes counting winners by twos! Smith was rightfully disqualified.

It would be bad enough if he lost the unofficial meet-long handicapping contest to arch-rival Mark Cusano of the Gazette, but not to this upstart. For picking the greatest number of winners, Graves and Cusano would give Russ Harris a run for his money.

Personally, all three made me give up the ghost and so I began concentrating on ROI, a shift in focus I never regretted. I certainly made out better than MSNTJ who, after that season, disappeared from the Saratoga press box scene forever.

Give or take a few years, I’ve known Matt Graves for close to a half century. Never once did I hear him raise his voice in anger, or a cross word about anyone, and there are plenty of opportunities given a racetracker’s life and copious number of cocktails shared.

My lasting memory was of him roaming center field for the media’s slow-pitch soft-ball team in Saratoga. As one might expect, he hit the ball a ton and was great defensively. Given my speed, or lack thereof, I was the pitcher in the annual game vs. the Spa jockeys.

They had a pretty good lineup: Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velazquez, and Eddie Belmonte, in that era. Later on it was Jose Amy and others. Amy easily was their best athlete.

An everlasting memory I have of Matt was of him being one of the first to race out of our makeshift dugout to second base to help break up a fight.

I can’t remember if Belmonte was playing shortstop or second base. Bill Nack, multi-award-winning writer, Secretariat’s Boswell and ex-marine barreled hard into Belmonte while trying to stretch a single into a double. Boo-rah!

Eventually, peace was restored but it was the beginning of the end of our softball rivalry with the Saratoga jocks.

Matt had a great singing voice and would burst into song-preferably Roy Orbison—at the slightest provocation. I can sing a little (“Sunrise-Sunset” at my wedding, and not a dry eye in the house) but I was more of a big-city doo-wopper. Harmony was my thing, not solos.

But sang we did, unabashedly loud on those late nights turned into early sunlit mornings at the Anchor Inn on Saratoga Lake; rivals and friends of good cheer, especially cheer.

So, as the great Willie Nile suggests, Toni and I today will “raise a glass and speak the names of all those who braved the flames”—Matt, and Paulie and Mike and Jack and Rick and Wolfie and Jackie and Chuck and Wolfie on this most fitting of days.

Toni and I are celebrating our unofficial 49th wedding anniversary—actually its January 12. On that date in 1969, the value play was Jets plus points vs. the mighty Baltimore Colts.

So, Matt, today we sing we of our kin and kind to all those we have left behind, ever in our hearts and minds. And I’ll see you at the crossing my old friend.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 3, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Gun Runner Under the Big Top

One of the things that I love but take for granted about being a turf writer and public handicapper happens the day immediately following a wild weekend of events.

And if you think that the staging of the Eclipse Awards and the world’s richest horse race at one venue within a 48-hour period isn’t a whirlwind, you might as well stop reading right now.

As I arrived at Gulfstream Park earlier than I wanted Sunday morning--too late to catch a glimpse of Gun Runner being loaded onto an airport-bound van but two months too early for a scheduled interview--I was awed by the efficiency of circus life at the racetrack.

It was shortly before 9 am and it was as if the Pegasus World Cup Invitational--with its hoopla, tents and the specially constructed VIP Cabana meant to shelter deep-pocketed attendees from the elements and an inquisitive media--never happened.

The traffic gates that separate one parking area from another were neatly lined up for that task, just like would on any other day after an event with one notable exception:

There was a bit more buzz expected in the building as Pegasus high rollers remained in town to throw their money at a $4-million Rainbow, spending another $16 million to share in what became a humongous pool. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Appropriately, the festivities began Thursday evening with a libation, a ”Keeneland Breeze,” the server called it, a mash-up of bourbon, Triple Sec and ginger ale, the cocktail hour courtesy of the Keeneland Association—your bloated takeout dollars at work.

Serious bourbon drinkers seemed offended by the blasphemy of it--a fellow sipper whispering he thought it was a great waste of perfectly good Maker’s Mark. “Perhaps,” I said, “but we get to keep the cool souvenir glasses.”

In keeping with Eclipse Award tradition, the program went on far too long, a tad over three hours. In keeping with Gulfstream Park tradition, the program was delayed approximately six minutes. (I set the over-under line at six minutes. To celebrate, I drained a second souvenir glass).

Attempting to raise the program a notch, Nick Luck of NBC Sports was brought in as host. I heard criticisms of Luck the next day which were entirely unfair. The Eclipse audience is the toughest in sports entertainment. TVG does excellent work day-to-day. Unfortunately, broadcasting the Eclipse Awards live isn’t one of them.

On several occasions, Mr. Luck had to direct an idle music ensemble to play the award winners off stage to give the ceremony a Grade 1 veneer. As one presenter, Tom Durkin, explained, a long program is inevitable when giving 22 awards to 22 large groups in one evening.

Poignant highlights were trainer Peter Miller’s heart-rending recollection of the San Luis Rey fire that claimed five of his horses, becoming emotional in praise of his team and other backstretch workers who put themselves in harm’s way to keep loss of equine life to a minimum. Ultimately, his barn burned to the ground.
Frank Stronach, the Proud Grandfather of Nicole Walker
- Photo by Toni Pricci

Another emotive moment was Frank Stronach’s acceptance of the Eclipse Award of Merit for his countless contributions. I especially liked his pledge to continue growing the sport before challenging, in a collegial way, the movers and shakers present to help him correct racing’s most serious issues and find new, better way to market the game.


Like most modern players tethered to the Thoroughbred, I watch almost all horse races on television even when at the track. In short, it’s the best view. But not big racing events. If present, I want to feel the big race, so I watch the big one on the apron with the fans.

With wife Toni at my side and broadcaster Ron Flatter of VSiN one step above, we watched from the steps of the stairway hard by the horse-path that leads to reserved seating and Ten Palms trackside restaurant, perhaps 30 yards from the starting gate. We had the best stoop in the house.

Two aspects stuck out from the view on the steps: that the 2017 Horse of the Year broke like a rocket ship and followed Collected, sitting right off his right flank while sharp breaking West Coast eased back into a perfect-pocket as the triad entered the backside.

And where the hell is Sharp Azteca, anyway?!

Gun Runners' First Jump - Photo by Jon Kral
After reappearing from behind the giant matrix board, even the naked eye could see that Florent Geroux was holding a loaded Gun Runner, ready to pounce on cue. Ever dangerous West Coast and Javier Castellano were sitting right there, waiting to pounce on Gun Runner once that one pounced on Collected.

At the three-eighths pole, Gun Runner made his move, swallowing Collected rather easily and Castellano sensed it. He moved immediately closer so that Gun Runner wouldn’t gain too much separation on him. The rest of the field was nowhere; these two would decide it.

I’ve been a fan of Gun Runner since his Triple Crown prep season, for selfish reasons. I never lost a significant win or exacta wager since he memorably, and significantly, won the Risen Star ($12.20), Louisiana Derby (9.80), Clark (6.20) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (6.80).

But it was about more than money. Gun Runner was a newly crowned Horse of the Year champion. I can’t remember another of his class that improved as incrementally, as long, at such a high level. I became aware of form-cycle analysis two decades ago; his development was perfect.

Steve Asmussen played Gun Runner like Yo Yo Ma plays the cello, hitting every correct note with a horse the trainer freely admits made his task that much easier. For history, I wanted him to go out like a champion. He deserved the distinction because he earned it.

Gun Runner: Greatest Show on Earth
- Coglianese Photos
Leaving the quarter-pole, there was an instant when it appeared that West Coast might grab him, and that’s when Geroux asked him for his life, as jockeys are wont to say. Racing’s newest American turned out to be the perfect fit for the perfect racehorse:

“Be the big horse…be the big horse…be the big horse,” I yelled. They reached the wire and I smiled because he won and I was happy to be there and because there is no cheering in the press box. There’s plenty of time for nuanced analysis later on.

Like many in the racing media, I sometimes had issues with Gun Runner’s trainer. But I was happy for him, mostly because of his race horse and as elegant a rider as I’ve never met.

I intend to correct that oversight one day in the near future because he appears to be such a class act and because he wanted to become an American citizen in a nation of immigrants. And his dad would be so proud.

God permitting there will be a time for that, one quiet morning after the Big Top has folded yet another tent.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Will Mike Smith’s Learning Experience Produce Pegasus Upset?

If I were to mix sports metaphors coming out of Monday’s national teleconference sponsored by the NTRA, it would be this: Mike Smith is to Wayne Lukas-speak what Steve Asmussen-speak is to Bill Belichick.

Draw your own conclusions, but this much I do know; Mike Smith, in addition to be one of the greatest money riders the sport has ever known, is a classy, standup individual.

HRI regulars, and several racing-interviews later, fans have read or heard what I thought of Smith’s indifferently lackadaisical effort aboard Collected in the recent Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes.

Collected is a very classy five-year-old chestnut that has compiled a lifetime 8-for-13 slate with accumulated earnings of more than $2.3 million.

Of course, the San Antonio was intended as a prep for Saturday’s world’s richest Pegasus horse race and, as trainer handicapping-speak teaches us, one race is worth many workouts and is easier on the horse over time depending on what remains in the tank.

“I didn’t want [the San Antonio] to be a gutty race—go fast early, hold off the closers, and go fast late,” explained the Hall of Famer and a top finalist to earn a third Eclipse Award riding title Thursday night.

Smith explained the San Antonio further by saying that his rival’s strategy in the small field was to play off whatever he did aboard the 3-10 favorite. “[Collected] fooled me, he turned off, relaxed so quick. When the other riders saw that, they all backed right off.

“Sometimes it’s harder to win in those small fields, everybody knows where everybody else is. I didn’t want to have to make that [big] four-wide move [into contention].”

But even before Smith was asked about his ride in the San Antonio, he admitted that he made a bad tactical decision. In this game, this issue is not exclusive to Mike Smith. It happens at every racetrack every day, every place horse racing is conducted.

In retrospect, I might have been too tough on Smith re the San Antonio. It was, after all, his first ride on the Bob Baffert-trained flyer. Martin Garcia, now riding in New York, was his regular pilot. (Maybe that was one of the reasons why young Garcia shipped east).

Smith will be better for his San Antonio experience. He is/was the regular, highly successful rider of West Coast, with whom he is 3-for-3 and gets along with him so well that he can push buttons at the damnedest times and always getting a favorable result.

When asked of his choice for the Pegasus, Smith explained that he had no choice. “That’s a good question for Bob.

“It wasn’t presented to me as a choice. I’m just happy to be out there on one of them, get him into position, one that you and your horse is happy with.”

Asked to put on his handicapping hat, positing that Collected, Gun Runner and Sharp Azteca all have fair mid-gate draws and break sharply from the gate, he didn’t know which horse might be in front turning into the Gulfstream backstretch.

“These horses are so straight forward and so good you can do anything you want with them,” he said. “If you trained them for speed, they’ll give you speed, they all would be comfortable on the lead.

“If I can get [Collected] comfortable, and I’m comfortable, I can go from there. I can look at how the race is developing, how fast we’re going, then I can think about the decision I have to make next.” As the record shows, Smith makes damn good decisions.

Asked if a longer run-up to the timing pole and official start of the race, routinely 60 feet for nine furlong races at Gulfstream Park, if a longer run-up of say 100 or 120 feet might help mitigate a wide draw. Since 2008, only two horses have won from slip 12.

“A little longer run-up couldn’t hurt, and could help. But for any horse [of this caliber in this race] it would be very difficult from the 10, 11 or 12; not impossible, but very difficult. You’d have to jump out extremely well.”

Smith is a rightful co-favorite for the 2017 Eclipse title, along with Jose Ortiz. Through DEC 10, Ortiz led the country with $27 million in earnings and number of wins, 226. But each had 13 Grade 1 victories with Smith winning 35 graded stakes to Ortiz’s 30.

“Money Mike” might have been a clear cut favorite to win his third Eclipse title had Arrogate been Arrogate after returning from Dubai.

“It’s too bad we had to come back at Del Mar. I’m not sure we saw 70 percent of him there, coming back from Dubai.

“But Gun Runner deserves to be the Horse of the Year. He came back from Dubai and stepped it up a notch. He came back and went unbeaten. You can’t take that away from him.”

So can Smith, in his second ride on Collected, spring the upset and make up the 3-1/2 lengths that separated his Pegasus mount from Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?”

“I know I’m gonna’ ride him a lot different than I did the other day.”

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 22, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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