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

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Following a Successfully Unforgettable Saratoga Season, Uncertainty

SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 2, 2014—Had an idea for a lead, something about how there were only three hundred-plus days until the Saratoga 152 opener in July of 2015. But I don’t know how many days that will be because not even the New York Racing Association has that answer.

And so, in the final days of the recently concluded meet, after trial balloons had been launched then walked back, the fact that the association doesn’t know rings true because serious discussions on the matter have yet to be held. It’s now back to square one and here’s the bottom line:

Whatever opening day 2015 turns out to be no one—repeat, no one--has a clue of what the future of New York racing will be next year or beyond. The only thing that is known is that the current administration must make its intentions known by next spring.

To bid, or not to bid, that is the question.

As for the season past, the NYRA is claiming victory, but success often is in the eye of the beholder. That’s because attendance figures do not accurately reflect the number of people in the building, for soon after an announced attendance of 8,800 on a Wednesday early in the meet, 6,400 season passes were counted in the daily totals.

HRI is on record earlier that it has no problem with this practice, even if the passes sold at Stewart’s Shops were deeply discounted, and we are aware that prepaid admissions in other sports are sold at the retail level.

Requests from management to confirm or deny as to when and why the new policy went into effect received no response.

What doesn’t make sense from a business perspective were the gains or losses sustained on-track and off given that, according to a Daily Racing Form story, field size, number of races and rescheduled turf events, while all lower, were virtually unchanged year over year.

All sources handle was down 2.6 percent despite the overall improvement in quality while on-track handle increased by 1.9 percent despite a 12 percent gain in on-track attendance, clearly a reflection of when the 6,400 season pass-holders were or were not in the building.

Success is not only measured at the bottom line, however, nor should it be. The aesthetics were great and numerous, and the improved quality and competitiveness of the racing resulted in more photo finishes than during any season, at any venue, in recent memory.

On the racetrack, the gutsy, successful return of Wise Dan to score a three-pear in the Bernard Baruch Stakes, while giving seven rivals from eight to 13 pounds on the scale, was jaw-dropping, raising him to a level that even eclipses his worthy 21-for-28 career slate.

Trainers Jimmy Jerkens and Mike Hushion, graduates of the H. Allen Jerkens University of Horsemanship, were responsible for two of the best shows seen between the fences this season.

Jerkens trainees finished noses apart in the Travers, the horseman also winning with about four of every 10 horses he saddled over the span of 40 days. And now, as the developer of V.E. Day, Jerkens has an exciting complement to the talented Wicked Strong.

For his part, Hushion helped orchestrate the performance of the meet by getting Artemis Argotera, bred 50 miles up the Northway from Saratoga in Chestertown by Chester and Mary Broman, to leave New York-bred company and demolish a field of older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Ballerina.

The H. Allen Jerkens training title, which Todd Pletcher won for the fifth straight year, his 11th overall, turned into a contest when Chad Brown, who also has barns-full of talented runners, made a late surge to make it close as Pletcher was having, for him, an uncharacteristic Todd-like season.

In his defense, the certain-to-be first ballot Hall of Famer did have a plethora of seconds on his card but not among those were no-show performances by Palace Malice and Princess of Sylmar--who did not receive a single 10th place vote in this week’s NTRA Poll.

At the moment, Close Hatches is in a class by herself, just like in the Personal Ensign.

Javier Castellano’s understanding of what’s needed to win turf races was key in his winning a second consecutive Angel Cordero Jr. riding title but, in a fashion, the buzz belonged to Irad Ortiz who, following his Belmont Summer co-championship, proved he belongs among New York’s elite.

Gratifying to see was the emergence of Itsmyluckyday onto the Grade 1 stage by virtue of his Whitney placing and Woodward score, and the consistency shown by the speedy and gutsy Moreno, who beat Itsmyluckyday before finishing second to him at meet’s end. They were good 3-year-olds that became good 4-year-olds.

Two runners that proved pleasant surprises were Stopchargingmaria and Palace, both of which would have been huge odds to sweep a pair of Grade 1s, but ‘Maria’ parlayed the Coaching Club American Oaks into the Alabama while Palace returned to win the Forego after first taking the A.G. Vanderbilt.

But it’s tradition, old and new, that sets Saratoga Race Course apart from the rest of the continent’s racetracks. Two newer ones; “Red Jacket Day,” in recognition of outstanding achievement, and the newly created “Jockey Legends Day’” have become heart-warming new events that will be cherished for years to come.

So if it was Wise Dan that stamped this season with respect to what was seen between the fences, it was the human being in the announcer’s booth that left an indelible impression on this session.

Saratoga 151 belonged to Tom Durkin. Bittersweet were the cheers and tears from the crowd that showed admiration and love for a horse racing practitioner that gave nothing less than his very best. And his best was more than that; it was unforgettable as Saratoga itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, September 01, 2014

“Tom-my Dur-kin, Clap-Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September, 1, 2014—What can you say about a legend?

“No words,” is an expression we’ve heard often recently, but usually it marks solemn occasions, such as the sudden, unexpected loss of Robin Williams. The moment is so profound that erudition is overmatched.

Legends are found on the silver screen or television, like Williams, or the stage, the baseball diamond or the gridiron. For the average American, knowing or loving a legendary figure is an unattainable fantasy.

But most people don’t feel that way about Tom Durkin. He is approachable, responsive, and racing fans have reached out to button-hole him virtually every day this meet, telling him what his calls, his words, have meant to them.

There’s a sign as you drive down Nelson Avenue toward High Rock Ave., propped up against a house on the corner. It says: “Arrrrh, thanks for the memories, Tom, you will be missed.”

Mayor Joanne Yepsen talked about Durkin’s presence and accessibility in the first of two ceremonies: “You are not only an icon in the racing industry but an icon right here in our great city.

“For Saratoga race fans, your voice was a familiar and reassuring presence, one of the sounds of Summer in Saratoga. [Your] warmth and generosity have earned great admiration in our city and many Saratogians are proud to consider [you] a friend.”

Her Honor spoke those words inside the announcement that proclaimed Sunday as “Tom Durkin Day.”

“You’ve got my vote,” responded Durkin over the track’s public address system.

Congressman Paul Tonko acknowledged Durkin’s contributions to the sport of horse racing via an official “Proclamation from the United States House of Representatives.”

Durkin later received a key to the City of Saratoga Springs from one of its leading citizens, NYRA Board member John Hendrickson, during Sunday’s public ceremony following Durkin’s last call, the 123rd running of the Spinaway.

And finally, it was Durkin’s turn at the microphone for the last time since he first became the voice of New York racing in 1990.

Acknowledging and thanking all the people responsible for his career would be impossible, he said, I would need to be at the podium thanking people until opening day in 2015, then he said this:

“There is one person that is completely and entirely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing, and I’m happy to say that that person is right here in Saratoga today.

“He’s in the back yard, on a picnic bench underneath a pine tree, probably looking up at this very image right now, and she’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail, in the clubhouse, in a box seat, in a TV parlor in Syracuse, at a track in Ohio, in front of a computer terminal in California.

“And that person who I owe an inexpressible gratitude to is you, the racing fan, the horseplayer, thank you, thank you for it all, thank you for everything…

“And now it’s time to say one last thing into this microphone, and I’ve chosen these words very carefully, they are these: ‘Long live horse racing, and long live Saratoga’.”

And long live the man who this month was celebrated with the Jockey Club Medal of Honor for long and distinguished service, honored in the second annual ceremony of “Red Jacket” for his contributions to the sport and Saratoga Race Course, a saddlecloth from the jockeys, a #1, with the inscription ‘You Are the Man.’

Indeed, Tom Durkin has provided the soundtrack of our adult lives and created a template which many in his trade have followed, a primer for every would-be race caller to study carefully.

But to those in the industry lucky enough to call him a friend, his generosity of spirit, and depth of love for life, and for the living, dwarf his considerable professional skills.

Tom Durkin is one of those rare lights that if you’re fortunate enough to rub up against it, improves the quality of your life, a feeling which he has given to all those that have shared intimate moments.

He is a man who has an untold number of best friends, and he makes you feel that you are the only person in the room that has his complete and undivided attention.

Sunday brought the curtain down on a brilliant, legendary career. He burst on the scene as if it were yesterday, a 43-year career than can be described best in one word: “Splashtastic.”

And that’s that.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wise Dan’s Finest Hour

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 30, 2014—At this stage, it’s amazing that certain Thoroughbreds can still provide chills and thrills to fans, bettors and everyone in between.

But betting wasn’t necessary to have an interest in the Bernard Baruch, not when two-time defending Horse of the Year is making his first start since Derby day, enduring colic surgery in between.

It’s no secret that we wished that at some point in the last two seasons, that the connections of Wise Dan would take the highest road possible; there was no question as to turf mile supremacy. So why not one run for the ages?

On a simply gorgeous Saratoga afternoon, Wise Dan returned to work, attempting to win the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch for the third consecutive year off a series of seven workouts while having to spot seven rivals anywhere from 8 to 13 pounds.

After 29 races, 21 lifetime victories, multiple championships and $6.8 million later, the 56th running of the Bernard Baruch turned out to be Wise Dan’s finest hour.

So anxious to compete, in fact, the normally well behaved gelded 7-year-old pulled a Hi Ho Silver in the starting gate, parting company with Johnny Velazquez, was eventually harnessed by the assistant starters behind the gate, Johnny remounted, and the race was on.

As turf races go--a surface normally producing bunched-up fields with horses checking and steadying all over the lot—this one was cleanly run, the eight horses stretched out and going comfortably with the champ neatly nestled in fourth position.

Morton Fink and Charlie LoPresti could not have drawn up the scenario any better. But there still was a race to be won and this field was running hard all the way. With Five Iron setting realistically fractions over a firm course, every quarter was run in less than 24 seconds.

By the time the free running speedster was approaching the sixteenth pole, the mile was clicked off in a snappy 1:33.20, but by then Johnny Velazquez was grinding his way forward, confidently and un-aggressively.

Inside the final half-furlong, Velazquez reached back and gave the champion four right-handed raps on the rump, Wise Dan stretched out to the wire, opened ground, appeared on his way—remarkably—when Optimizer, nursed back to top health by Calumet farm manager Jose Fernandez, the team hit the wire together.

The champ, for the 22nd time in his illustrious career, proved the most photogenic, holding off a fierce rally by an equally impressive Optimizer was also was overcoming his issues.

The time of 1:39.08 was a mere 17/100s off the course standard belonging to the “Sultan of Saratoga,” Fourstardave.

“He showed today why he is the two-time Horse of the Year,” said a relieved LoPresti. “Too overcome what he’s overcome…"

“When I got past the sixteenth pole he was giving me everything he had,” Velazquez said, “and [Optimizer] was coming from the outside. There was a little bit of doubt, he was getting tired.”

“I wouldn’t have been disappointed if he was beat today, it would have been a good race to build on,” LoPresti explained.

“What happened to him, training to come back, and run with 127 pounds, that’s incredible,” his rider said.

“That’s the amazing thing about him,” said his trainer. “God willing he comes back good and he’ll build from this race. He’ll be way tougher next time.”

Is there any doubt?

Plesa and Paco's Lucky Day

The headline race of the day, the Woodward, looked like a two-horse race on paper and that’s just the way it came out.

Moreno, as expected, set the tempo, shadowed closely by the newly blinkered Itsmyluckyday, who deserved to earn his long sought-after Grade 1 title.

Great work turned in by trainer Eddie Plesa with Paco Lopez giving a textbook demonstration on how to ride the stalker in a two-horse race successfully to the finish.

Both horses raced very well, and Prayer For Relief came back with a much improved to finish third without seriously threatening the leaders, who were engaged in a bumping match right to the finish.

The stewards rightfully decided that Lopez and Junior Alvarado were equally guilty.

As one reflects on the Woodward card, the speed biased nature of the surface should not disparage two other excellent performances; one by Stonetastic in the Grade 2 Prioress and the other by maiden graduate El Kebeir.

Breen Filly a Stone Runner

With most of the major competition turning back from the Grade 1 Test, the gray daughter of Mizzen Mast simply ran a hole in the wind to take the Prioress impressively.

Paco Lopez shot to the lead from an inside slip and when no one was able to challenge, she was gone, running three-quarters of a mile in 1:08.88, drawing out to win by 8-1/2 lengths at the end.

Favorite Miss Behaviour was the runnerup, saving the place by a neck over Southern Honey.

The victory was a tad bittersweet for trainer Kelly Breen. “This is a week since my father passed away, and he’s here with me. It means a lot. It’s been a tough couple of weeks.

“She was running fine earlier this year but she was very immature. We sent her home to grow up,” said Terri Burch, racing manager for owner Stoneway Farm.

“When we put her back in training she had a giant growth spurt so we had to go slow and wait for her to come around. [Now] I think we are looking toward the Breeders’ Cup.”

And why not? In her seven-race career, Stonetastic has sprinted only three times; the Prioress was her third victory.

This Baby Can Fly

El Kabeir made a loaded maiden field of juveniles look bad as he went to the front and improved his position, winning by 10-3/4 lengths in 1:09.81.

“[The horse] made me enter him,” said trainer John Terranova. “This horse is doing very well and I don’t know if we want to wait until we get back to Belmont,” Terranova said to owners Ahmed and son Justin Zayat.

“They’re babies,” said jockey Irad Ortiz, and last time he broke a little slow. He was in front easy [today]. He’s a nice horse.”

“We have the Champagne in mind,” said Terranova.

Linda Rice, the Palace Queen

Linda Rice became the first female trainer to win the Grade 1 Forego when her former claimer Palace, who’s holding his flesh and form remarkably well, won his second Grade 1 of the meeting, which makes Rice the first woman to win two Grade 1s at the same meet.

The only horse to come from off the pace on the main track all day, busting through on the fence with just over a furlong remaining, which helped his cause immensely, and drew off from rivals that were finishing evenly.

That is all but the favorite, Clearly Now, who was absolutely awful in defeat. Palace finally must get his props as the best sprinter on the East Coast.

Written by John Pricci

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