Pricci's Saratoga Diary
For the next 40 days of New York racing, Executive Editor John Pricci will provide his insights on all things Saratoga for the 35th consecutive year in his original "Saratoga Diary." It debuted in 1977, the year Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Jatski was placed first in the Travers Stakes following the disqualification of Run Dusty Run. So keep up with the cold exactas, hot issues, and build your own stable of live horses, all from John's unique perspective, exclusively at HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Sunday, July 24, 2016


Saratoga Diary XXXIX: No Graveyard Blues for Songbird


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 24, 2016--

Dear Diary,


Maybe I should have had Broadway John chronicle what opening week of Saratoga 148 looked like and felt like. Per usual, good news and bad, mostly bad, but the best thing to report is the racing this first weekend of the cherished Saratoga season.

You might not care about the rantings from some loon from Queens. Lest I remind you Diary that it’s been a pretty good week for loons from Queens.

The saving grace is, as always, the horses and the competition, four-legged and two, with storylines ever where you turn. But as people in my set know, we insist on sharing bad news immediately. Here’s the notable and notorious events of the week:

Foremost, the horrific apparent suicide of a 37-year-old female trainer in Seattle? I have daughters her age; it's unspeakable, there are no words.

Her career, her life, was just starting and, by the numbers, it was good one. But digits almost always seem to lie when you need them to be right the most. And, from every source, Monique Snowden was all about her horses.

And the loss she felt after her colt took a bad step is staggering for racetrack lifers, deeply painful in a manner not dissimilar to how people feel when they lose “family pets.” Devastating.

Snowden had developed a very promising juvenile than prompted the owners of Mucho Macho Man to fly out to Seattle to see if The Chilli Man would win his stakes debut after breaking maiden by a short pole on debut.

The Reeves’ had plans to vet him out after the race, purchase him, and bring him back to South Florida. But a bad step made all that depressingly moot. Prayers, dear diary, for Monique's family, friends, and the Emerald Downs racing community.

Sadly, bad news got worse: The new normal terrorist-attack du jour, sponsored or otherwise, played against the backdrop of a political convention which featured a new theme for the times; ill wishes to men of good will.

In fact, so comfortably hostile was the vibe in Cleveland that Laura Ingram was moved to salute the supremacists in the crowd, Der Fuhrer-style.

Hope all those people get their America back, diary, I’ve already lost mine.

There are other issues we wanted to speak to: Steve Crist’s retirement is a huge deal on many levels, such was his influence on the sport. We’ll get to that another time, diary, having no time to give this development justice at the moment.

We also have a take on Jeff Platt’s letter to the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency and Jesus Castanon’s magical mystery tour at Ellis Park, stories that also broke last week. As for Crist, HRI Horseplayer contributor Indulto has Crist’s future all mapped out for him: (Sorry, Steve, no rest for the wicked).

OPENING DAY: Main track was cuppy and tiring; perhaps sprinkling some of that famed Saratoga water over the surface might have tightened things up a bit. Wherever you stand on bias, you can do worse, diary, if you want to upgrade opening-day speed horses when they race next…

If the 4th, Sentiero Italia made a great return to the races, showing her signature turn of foot, winning in reserve; great race to build on… Sweet Loretta, everyone said, beat little at Monmouth in debut. Todd Pletcher said shortly thereafter he had two fillies for the Schuylerville. He chose ‘Loretta’, who steam-rolled impressively late, even if the dynamics flattered her style…

Dairy, I had my doubts about undefeated Ancient Secret at the longer two-turn trip. Chad Brown’s filly probably had her doubts for my betting against her. So Todd takes the stakes lid-lifter; Chad Brown answers: It’s on!

Saturday, Bitumin announced himself to the world in the G3 Sanford. No speed from the gate? No problem, I’ll do it from right down the middle of Broadway. Trainer Eddie Kenneally and Javier Castellano were impressed after the race. Can’t blame them…

Jimmy Toner lost a thisclose photo attempting to win his fourth Grade 1 Diana with the tough luck Recepta but course-loving sprint-finishing Dacita proved narrowly best at the line, a race that didn’t deserve loser.

The Diana was amazing drama but, given the national attention and anticipation, the most compelling stretch run of the day had to be California Chrome digging in, not allowing loose-leading quality frontrunner Dortmund re-surge to victory.

Both look they will benefit from the San Diego Handicap and move to the Pacific Classic better for having the prep. Now it will be The Big Three, should behemoth Beholder do her job next weekend prior to her scheduled Pac Classic defense.

Sunday was all about Songbird putting her reputation and undefeated record on the line in her toughest test as a three-year-old, with a Grade 1 Ashland winner, Weep No More, and the faster multiple graded stakes-winning Carina Mia sitting off her right hip.

Did we say faster? Did we say it would matter?

Julien Leparoux rode Carina Mia perfectly, moving just at the right time, approaching the quarter-pole, hoping to stick his head in front into the straight. But Mike Smith reached down and the champion dug down deep. She repelled the challenge, vanquished her rival, drawing away at the end.

Who's gonna' beat her in the Alabama? Damn, diary, who's going to have the stones to go first over?

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015


Saratoga: Meeting and Exceeding Expectations


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 7, 2015—Strange, posting this first ever Saratoga Diary from the Sunshine State. Ironic, too, since daily summer storms here are running to form while the Spa atmospherics were unusually remarkable; clear days with hardly a trace of humidity.

Quickly: Name another extended race meet in which only 10* turf races were rescheduled to the main track?

NYRA bashing is a popular sport, one that goes with the territory. And while I can nitpick with the best of them, I did not see a multitude of major faults to bitch about; not even the well-publicized cap on Travers day attendance.

Complaining about the current NYRA administration comes easily, especially when racetrack language is generously peppered with corporate speak, but they hosted a very successful season by any measure.

Yes, compared to other years, prices were exorbitant. But when likened to other major sports—and Saratoga is a world class sports venue--prices were in line, even if $5 for bottled water on Travers day was excessive.

For anyone attending the Travers, the “guest experience” was enjoyable. One could move about the crowded facility with relative ease and clubhouse betting queues were not inordinately deep--at least on the three or four occasions we left our press box sanctuary.

Simply because the brand says Saratoga doesn't mean the race meet will be memorable. But in 2015 it was. The racing was spectacular, even many mundane weekday programs necessitated by the expansion of Mega Racedays.

If persistent whispers are accurate and Executive Vice President of Racing Martin Panza does not have his contract renewed this fall, he certainly saved his best for last.

But this is an imperfect world and horsemen complained to us on occasion that Panza’s condition book is written on a three-week cycle.

This favors powerful stables because, the argument goes, they've got numbers to spread around both condition books; smaller outfits wishing to run back cannot because there are fewer similar spots to re-enter.

In case no one’s noticed, this game is tough and no place on this continent is it any tougher to win than at Saratoga. Just ask the majority of horseplayers, some excellent practitioners, who were humbled at this session.

It is said that bettors want big, competitive fields, and in the main that’s exactly what they got. What’s that expression, careful what you wish for? Imagine how much better handle might have been had players been able to churn back their winnings?

Between the fences and on the backstretch, there were some truly remarkable achievements, defining moments, and career-making seasons. The list of achievers and over-achievers were great. Here, then, some observations on the best extended race meet the planet has to offer:

Jockeys:

Irad Ortiz Jr.: has been leading rider before, but this was his first Saratoga title. It won’t be his last. He rides for many of the best outfits. He has patience and excellent timing, rides with extreme confidence, even when he had some uneven moments.

Javier Castellano: Ortiz won the title but no one had a better meet than Javier. Six Grade 1s in 40 days is DiMaggioesque. There were 17 G1s, with two over hurdles, and winning the Whitney, Woodward, Alabama and Travers is extremely unlikely to be duplicated.

Johnny Velazquez: Per usual, JR won more races with his head than he did with his athleticism. He's talking about scaling back his daily schedule next year, concentrating on big races and special client relationships.

Jose Ortiz: Day to day, demonstrated why he’s consistently best away from the barrier, an excellent rider of speed horses.

Luis Saez: HRI predicted success in NY for Saez when he left Florida several years ago. With 35 wins at the meet, it was his Big Apple breakthrough moment.

Eric Cancel: With 18 winners at America’s premier meet, a stand that doesn’t offer apprentices many opportunities, Cancel ranked eighth in the final standings. The mutuel payoffs averaged over $20!

Kendrick Carmouche: Ranked ninth with Jose Lezcano behind Cancel with 16 wins, but Carmouche just might have earned himself a permanent spot in this talented colony.

Trainers:

Todd Pletcher: Face it, he is racing’s 1927 Yankees. Uncharacteristically coming from behind, it was Pletcher’s sixth straight Saratoga title and 12th overall. It’s one thing to have the stock, another to deliver so consistently—and this was following a record Belmont spring-summer meet.

Chad Brown: Hard to imagine you can have a breakthrough Saratoga with 31 winners and not win the title. Still, a career meet for the Mechanicville native.

Bill Mott: His meet was the training equivalent of a Z-pattern. Started fast, idled in mid-meet, but finished strongly.

Kiaran McLaughlin: Had an outstanding meet with 13 winners, finishing sixth among trainers. Indeed, Kiaran trains quality stock but it was horsemanship, not number of starters, that was responsible.

Jeremiah Englehart: Talk about career meets? Had 11 winners with few short-priced horses among them.

Barclay Tagg: Pointed to the meet--uncharacteristically with maidens and younger stock--and killed it with seven winners and a strike rate of well over 30%. (Meet favorites overall were only 29.5% efficient).

Notables:

Outstanding Meet Performance: Flintshire winning the G1 Sword Dancer

Outstanding Debut Victory: Jess’s Dream, who might have been farther back than Honor Code was when he broke his maiden here, and at two turns yet.

Outstanding Horse: Rachel Alexandra who, as colleague Tom Jicha noted, was the only three-time winner at the meet.

Outstanding Owner: Michael Dubb, repeater.

Outstanding Horsemanship: Dale Romans

Outstanding Moment: Chris Antley, posthumously entering the Hall of Fame

Outstanding About-Time Moment: King Leatherbury into the circle

Outstanding Bad Beat: Tepin, twice.

Outstanding Betting Favorite: Saratoga v Del Mar

Outstanding Life Celebration: Hail to The Chief

Outstanding Sportsmanship: Ahmed Zayat

Outstanding Morning Trial: American Pharoah

Outstanding Afternoon Trial: American Pharoah

*correction made 090815, 3:48 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Travers Aftermath Deserved Better From Espinoza


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 1, 2015—Victor Espinoza embarrassed himself. Maybe he began to take himself a little too seriously after becoming the first Triple Crown jockey in 37 years, or becoming a “Dancing With the Stars” celebrity.

Rather than accusing Jose Lezcano of “trying to hurt American Pharoah,” he should have taken a page from the Zayat’s book, or Bob Baffert’s, for that matter, who all handled the loss graciously, as crushed as they must have been at the time.

To their credit, they didn’t look for excuses, never came close to making one up the way Espinoza did. Ahmed Zayat spoke only of his horse not performing “like the American Pharoah I know.”

Baffert had it right, too, when, in the heat of the moment, he said it right--which is a lot different than saying the right thing, a.k.a. spin what really happened. “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game today. His tank wasn’t as full as we thought,” he said immediately port-race.

And neither did he say what he might have suspected but couldn’t prove, the reason why he was reticent to run in the first place. He worried about the spacing from the Haskell to the Travers and from the Travers to the Classic.

In a scheduling context, the Travers was no man’s land.

He knows all too well that the Derby of Midsummer is never won easily, never stolen on uncontested leads. Saratoga didn’t earn its deserved reputation by making things easy for “the best horse.”

And whatever instructions Lezcano may have gotten from Kiaran McLaughlin, he brought the race to the favorite because he felt that was the best way to beat him at that moment in time. Lezcano was on his back, no one else.

If handicappers were completely honest they would admit Lezcano was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t spot. No one knows whether Pharoah would have won had he not been pressed hard, but it’s difficult to imagine Frosted would have beaten him from behind. Been there, failed at that—twice.

Horseplayers hate conspiracies, who doesn’t? Except when events conspire to allow them to cash a bet. Hey, maybe I should get some credit from getting the champ beat. The Travers was the first time I picked him all year; stopped him cold.

But there it was, the middle half-mile in under 47 seconds that eventually got him beaten. If it hadn’t, then it would have been said American Pharoah bottomed-out the field on his way to victory.

American Pharoah was as gallant in defeat, as courageous as any non-winner of a race can be. Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup loss to Exceller comes to mind. No, Pharoah’s resurgent effort wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Slew's in 1978, but it was pretty damn good.

Good enough that Pharoah came back all the way back, vanquishing a super-sharp challenger by 2-1/4 lengths, a Grade 1 winner who dogged him right down to the bottom, passing him briefly at headstretch but unable to put him away.

To the contrary, Frosted was farther back at the finish than at any point of the mile and a quarter midsummer classic. Lezcano tried to beat American Pharoah, not “hurt” him. I can’t believe any jockey, especially those competing at this level, would ever harm a horse intentionally.

Even if jockeys weren’t animal lovers, which most are, horses provide the least talented among them with an excellent living. Why jeopardize that?

In one thoughtless, selfish moment, Espinoza’s charge undid much of the good will created by the colt and the people around him. For a jockey to suggest that another would purposely harm an animal, to win at any cost, is the kind of damage the sport doesn’t need.

The Mother of All Undercards:
If Saturday’s supporting card wasn’t the best I had ever seen, it was pretty damn close. Bettors must have agreed, sending in nearly $50 million from all-sources on the 13-race program…

Private Zone was stunningly triumphant, turning the Forego into a runaway once he engineered an opening gambit of 23 2/5 seconds. So, will it be the Sprint or the Dirt Mile. In either case, he will be a very tough out.

The King’s Bishop never fails to elicit blazing exhibitions of speed for what can be a grueling 7 furlongs. But a Pea Patch exacta? Really? Runhappy? Well, he’s appropriately named. And Limousine Liberal completing an Ellis Park two-speed-number sweep? Wow..!

I was never a big fan of the G1 Sword Dancer. Well given the Breeders’ Cup “Win and In” incentive, I can get used to seeing more high class Euros such as Flintshire. Double wow! Only where was he when I needed to complete a Breeders’ Cup multi-race sweep? Arrrggghhh..!

Looks like the connections have finally figured it out: Unbridled Forever wants to be a stretch-running sprinter. And that’s where Dallas Stewart is taking her, to the Filly & Mare Sprint; seven-eighths sure looks like her best go…

Maybe now, Sheer Drama will get her due. Just like their younger counterparts, the Eastern-based older fillies and mares are looking for a leader to challenge Beholder—if that’s even possible. David Fawkes has done a great job developing her, ditto Joe Bravo in the boot…

Written by John Pricci

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