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

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Final Saratoga Diary of 2016, and Then Some…

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 6, 2016—So many stories, so little bandwidth:

Economic Indicators Down in August: Despite the renewal of this country’s two most impactful boutique race meets, handle metrics were down significantly. With 6.08% fewer races, handle was down 9.37%.

Maybe there’s only so much betting money to go around, or: Could it be that high degree-of-difficulty horizontal wagers—the only type the game seems to promote (are you reading this, TVG?) ultimately takes more money out of circulation than it brings in?

Rabbit Redux: The use of rabbits in horse racing is nothing new and is quite routine around the world which makes it easier for the super-stables to dominate individual races. In the Sword Dancer, jockey Aaron Gryder did his job, albeit carelessly.

My thought? Did Javier Castellano have to ride America’s best turf horse as if he were astride some no-hope price shot, needing to save ground at any cost?

Saving ground wins grass races, of course, but was it really necessary to do so to such an extent in a short field with a strong pace? Poor execution, we believe.

Who knows? Maybe the real reason Roman Approval’s trainer objected--and subsequently his owner, too, on appeal--is because super-stable’s domination of the entry box yields a disproportionate and unfair advantage.

Flintshire’s trainer Chad Brown had three separate entrants in the seven-horse Grade 1.

When Gryder got off the fence with Inordinate to allow Flintshire through, he came back in and forced Maker’s Roman Approval to check.

Roman Approval was in no danger of pulling off the upset, but Gryder’s careless tack arguably cost Roman Approval a larger share of the purse.

The stewards were right not to alter the winning order of finish. But had Gryder received, say, a three-day suspension, it would have sent a message worth sending. I’m in favor of uncoupled entries with separate ownership interests as field size does matter.

But it’s disingenuous when bettors make a big deal of betting on large fields but argue for stable couplings. On second thought, I might be wrong about uncoupled entries. Maybe it is time to revert to trainer couplings, certainly a more equitable choice.

Rosario’s Woodward Ride Frosts Bettors: It was not Joel Rosario’s finest 1:48.92, far from it. Then neither was it Frosted’s, who entered the race off an unbelievably fast Met Mile--earning the fastest Thoro-Graph performance figure ever—followed by a visually stunning, dominant and rapidly run Whitney score.

Coming off consecutive top efforts is reason enough for a dull performance. The dye was cast at the start when Frosted left the gate with his head held high, but if Rosario’s body language is the measure, the rider was egregiously overconfident to the public’s detriment.

Settling in sixth behind an extremely moderate 48.43 was fine, but then to only hand ride his mount while very wide on the far turn, showing no urgency, and thinking it was OK to rally eight across the track while still under mild urging is heavy-fine worthy at least.

Given Rosario’s contemptuous handling, my first thought was maybe the big gray is empty and the rider didn’t want to hurt the horse’s lofty reputation in defeat. Frankly, I didn’t know what to think.
After straightening away, Rosario allowed Frosted to drift in on his left lead, doubtlessly hoping that seeing rivals would produce a surge of energy from Frosted, which it did.

But approaching the sixteenth pole, while still under no serious urging, Frosted continued to drift inward. Javier Castellano, saving ground and horse throughout, surged inside for the victory as Frosted’s mate, Mubtaahij, was saving the place from between horses.

The fact that Frosted resents being whipped in well publicized. But had Rosario gotten down on his belly sooner and “showed” Frosted the stick, the 2-5 Woodward favorite might have gotten the message clearly. As for the visuals, the optics were awful.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King: Spa-record setting trainer Chad Brown 40 victories enabled him to dethrone Todd Pletcher after six consecutive leading-trainer titles and 12 in all.
The great horsemanship is apparent when one sees how their horses are turned out, but their dominance, like Bob Baffert’s in Southern California, is not good for the greater good of the game going forward.

The time has come for U.S. tracks to follow Hong Kong’s lead and limit stall allotments. “Acting in racing’s best interests” has never stopped tracks from taking unilateral action via “house rules.”

Like the bettors cited in the example above, the game cannot have it both ways by allowing powerful stables to dominate the entry box for fear of costly restraint-of-trade lawsuits.

Like many suggestions that ostensibly are good for the game, we’ll bet the “under” when it comes to implantation and leveling the playing field at tracks everywhere, not just in New York and California. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that mega-stables can ship horses in from training centers elsewhere.

The sport can no longer afford catering to barns that are too big to fail. Of course, well healed owners could stop sending super-trainers top prospects by taking them away from other able horsemen who helped develop them in the first place.

John W. Phillips Latest to Join WHOA: His Darby Dan Farm has been breeding quality horses since forever, dating back to founder John W. Galbraith in 1935. Owner/breeders who do it the old fashioned way are to be celebrated, as should his trainer, Jimmy Toner.

“There is an old saying,”
commented Phillips, “that if you take care of the horse it will take care of you." To that I add the corollary "if we don't take care of the sport, we will have no horses to take care of… I support WHOA given its bold and rational support of HR 3084…”

On Tuesday of get-away week, I ran into one of the charter members of the Water, Hays and Oats Alliance at a restaurant. “I don’t make it a practice to talk shop at dinner, but what is your reaction to a 3-year-old going wire to wire in the first sub-two-minute mile and a quarter in Saratoga history?”

“I have no comment on that,” he said. “But I will say there simply is no appetite for drug reform within the industry in this country. My operation is going to concentrate on international racing from now on.”

The Secret to Jose Ortiz' Success: By riding 65 winners, nine more than brother Irad, the 24-year-old Ortiz put on a dazzling display during the final week of the meet to win his first Spa title. And the reason for his overnight success?

Just as California horses enjoy a significant tactical edge when meeting Eastern rivals, Ortiz’s success is based on his aggressive style. In California, the game is played at a faster pace which gives those runners a tactical competitive advantage.

Eastern riders don’t send their horses away from the barrier as is done out West. Empirically, it seems as if Ortiz catches more flyers out of the gate than any of his more celebrated, “name” competitors.

Ortiz is the best “speed rider” we’ve seen since the heyday of Patrick Valenzuela and Bob Ussery. And like many of today’s great practitioners, great speed riders often are the difference between victory and defeat.

Numbers, We’ve Got Numbers:
Yes, Virginia, racing is about more than Saratoga and Del Mar. Opening Saturday at Kentucky Downs, on-track handle jumped by 50% and 26% from all-sources… On the same after at Gulfstream Park, the second leg of its Florida Sires series, handle was up nearly 47% year over year. The first two parts of the three-day series are up a combined 35%.

Thirty percent of polled fans polled believed that both Inordinate and Flintshire should have been disqualified in the Sword Dancer… Rule 163.255, regarding “jail time” for recently claimed horses, was waived by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission “in the best interest of horse racing in the Commonwealth.”

Regulators failed to elaborate on what “best interest” meant—another favorite wins.

Under this year’s budget, Nassau County Off-Track Betting will be allowed exclusive rights to 1,000 slot-like betting machines at the Aqueduct Racetrack’s casino.

None of the money from the machines will go to NYRA, an apparent violation of NYRA’s franchise agreement with New York State that will cost the racing association an estimated $25 million.

Which brings to mind a song, with apologies to the late John Lennon:

“In the middle of the lane…

“In the middle of the lane I call your name…

“Whoa Cuomo, Whoa Cuomo…

“Your greed won’t turn me on...”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (24)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

SARATOGA: Too Much of a Good Thing?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 1, 2016—

Dear Diary,

This is the middle leg of Saratoga’s getaway weekend. By Monday evening, Saratoga 147 will be history. Thoroughbreds have been racing here since forever, part of the fabric like in no other city in North America.

Like New Orleans, Saratoga isn’t so much a destination as it is a feeling. No matter how familiar you are with the environs, no matter if know more than a hundred ways to avoid bustling Broadway on Travers night, the sense and sensibility of the place is timeless.

For me, Saratoga felt different this year. Maybe because I lost Terri, or maybe because 15 days is too short. So many people to visit with, so little time.

Oh, Caroline Street was impassable on Travers night, congested by revelers, like it is on almost any weekend, much less August. But the rest of the town was a little quiet, which never is the case in August.

With a few exceptions, there was little time to kill at the bar awaiting a table at the most popular restaurants, with or without reservations. We ate out most every night, albeit avoiding the newest hot spots that crop up around town every year.

Following the 12th race Travers day--still stunned by a front-running mile and a quarter in one-fifty-nine-and-three and in awe of the remarkable Lady Eli who returned from a debilitating disease a year later to finish second by 3/4s of a length, 1-1/16 miles in near record 1:38.77--we left the track via the Nelson Ave. gate with only two cars ahead of us.

Two cars!

There’s something wrong with this picture, I thought. I noted the time, 6:37 p.m. At that point, the race day was precisely seven hours and two minutes long.

Seven hours and two minutes!

I picked up Toni at 14 Central Avenue and we were at our favorite Italian Restaurant a little after 7 p.m. I had called an audible, arrived sans reservations, and I had my choice of tables. We were seated immediately.

After dinner, we sipped on anisette out back, hard by the bocce court, and the owner grabbed a quick bite at our table. “I noticed there were some tables available all night and this wasn’t the only time that’s happened this year. How’s business?”

“They’re an inch away from killing this whole thing,” the owner said.

“Is it the rents, the increased prices at the track for everything, the late post times?”

“All of it,” he said. “I’m lucky, I don’t need this but a lot of people I know are hurting. [The racing] isn’t even as special anymore. They run too many races.”

In the name of an enhanced “guest experience,” Saratoga has become too much of a good thing. In the name of job security and currying favor with state ownership, there are now price points for amenities that once were free.

In the modern simulcast age, with ever competing signals and post times that have become meaningless as every betting dollar is syphoned as if every day were closing day, a day at the races has become numbingly stale.

Last race post Travers day was 6:54 p.m. for a program that began at 11:35 a.m. On an 11-race card the day before, with a traditional 1 p.m. first post, the finale was off at 7:15 p.m. It’s no wonder a few thousand people leave the track each day before the best horses even run. How does that help the sport?

Saratoga is supposed to be about celebrating the sport, not just providing great betting fodder.

Many people believe that if it weren’t for horse racing, Saratoga Springs would still be a one-horse town in upstate New York. Indeed, Saratoga owes the racing community a debt.

But the racing community owes the city something, too: Respect; deference for its inhabitants, traditions, its fans and, yes, its merchants as well.

Racing programs that end at 7:15 sharply curtails social life and not for just the elite but for families and visitors to the region, people that might want to dine at 7, or a 9, but late posts don’t easily allow for second seatings or a night life.

Indeed, locals get greedy, too. Towns-people who rent their homes for sustained periods act as if they’re doing you a favor by offering their residences at slightly less than hotel rates, racing-season prices that rival Manhattan’s for a night’s lodging.

The Jicha’s and Pricci’s were reminded by the realtor of the bargain rate of $3,000 charged for a two-week stay--and that was after $200 to have it cleaned professionally following previous lodgers—two veterinarians who paid $5,000 for a 10-day stay.

We all understand that Saratoga is a premium event, not unlike an A-list concert or a pair of tickets to Yankee Stadium. But, in case some are unaware, there aren’t as many horse racing fans as there used to be. Abuse them and there will be no one left to build on.

Concession prices are off the charts. In today’s world, $12 for a special Hattie’s Fried Chicken sandwich is fair market value, but $7 for a lemonade is not. The price of reserve seats keeps rising, leaving section-after-section of empty seats most weekdays.

The magic of Saratoga is about making people fall in love with the place, the region and the game, not to make folks feel like taken-for-granted marks. If that mindset continues, someday they will open it and no one will come.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Travers Performance for the Ages

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 28, 2016—

Dear Diary,

In the post-race press conference following the 147th running of the Travers, Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms, who within a half-hour’s time saw Flintshire and Arrogate win two of the most prestigious races run at this storied course, was asked the meaning of Arrogate:

“Being arrogant,” answered Chandler, “but not in an unpleasant sense… and not really a real word.”

This description was totally apt, appropriate in the wake of what simply was one of the most dominatingly surreal performances in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Hyperbole, you say? Fine.

Feel free designate another performance, other than Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew’s remarkable nose loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and Dr. Fager’s world-record 1:32 1/5 mile in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap under 134 pounds.

Trying to find appropriate comparisons kept me awake Saturday night and these examples were the only three I could conjure. What 48,630 on-track fans and a national television audience saw on Saturday was truly a Thoroughbred performance for the ages.

In 1979, on one of those notoriously wet Saratoga afternoons, slop-loving General Assembly caught his favorite surface--a speed-favoring sloppy track--and ran off by 15 lengths to win the Travers in a track record 2:00.

In fact, there have been only three other sub-2:01 mile and a quarters in 147 years. On Saturday, over a dry track which was not aberrantly fast, Arrogate smashed General Assembly’s mark by a lot, his 13-1/2 length victory timed in an otherworldly 1:59.36.

And that was after being pressured throughout by two rivals in splits of 23.61, 46.84, 1:10.85 and 1:35.52. There have been only four opening quarter-mile splits that were faster and only one, Holy Bull in 1994, survived that.

Similarly, there were four half-mile fractions that were clearly faster and the best finish was Tumiga’s show effort in 1967, setting the table for Damascus’s record-smashing 22-length Travers victory.

Only Man o’ War, Honest Pleasure and Holy Bull were able to win the Travers after setting faster six-furlong splits.

Three other Midsummer Derby champions were able to deal with a faster one-mile split, including Ten Most Wanted from off the pace in 2003, and Jaipur’s unforgettable race-long speed duel with Ridan 54 years ago.

“What [Arrogate] did today is pretty incredible,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who thought he’d win last year’s Travers by a similar margin with the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

“He looks like a superstar in the making. I think the fans… they'll remember watching a horse like this because I know when I see performances like this--very rare.

“Last year you probably could have poured me out of a shot glass,” Baffert recollected. “We were pretty dejected. The whole town came out to see [American Pharoah] do something like Arrogate did today. I'm just glad to be back here with another chance at it…”

For good measure, not only did Baffert finish second with American Freedom, albeit in another zip code, but he won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop with Drefong, another laugher made possible by the fact that there’s no speed in New York like SoCal speed.

As long as the New York riding colony—for as long as I can remember—don’t send horses out of the gate as is done in California, West Coast shippers will always have a tactical pace advantage.

As for the turf-pedigreed, athletic Drefong, he’s a sprint star in the making and will be getting weight as a three-year-old when Breeders’ Cup Sprint time rolls around.

Drefong’s 1:21.25 was 26/100s of a second slower than the older A. P. Indian, who won his fourth in succession, remaining undefeated in four starts at seven furlongs.

Arrogate was not the only cause of celebration for the Juddmonte folks.

Rabbit-aided Flintshire demonstrated his electric turn of foot and blew open the G1 Sword Dancer, getting through on the fence in early stretch following Javier Castellano’s overzealousness to save ground with the best horse in a small field.

However, Castellano deserved props for his superb handling of Cavorting to win the G1 Personal Ensign. It’s highly unusual to come from last behind dawdling fractions of 48.77 and 1:12.64, first time going nine furlongs and first time rounding two turns.

But Castellano jumped out in front of his four rivals from the outside slip, forced them to react somewhat, before he took back and waited in the back of the pack after working his way inside.

Castellano saved ground throughout and tipped widest after straightening away, rallying strongly late for a half-length victory while improving Cavorting’s Spa-loving record to 4-for-4: Textbook race ride.

Trainer Tom Morley has done incredible work with older sprinting mare Haveyougoneaway, coming back to repeat here following a lifetime best effort made winning the shorter Honorable Miss, July 27.

Horses that like Saratoga love it and horses do so well here they recover in shorter duration. As for the heavy G1 Ballerina favorite, Carina Mia, we don’t understand why she was so close to the early pace coming off the two-turn Coaching Club Oaks.

Later on, Lady Eli tried gallantly in her long-awaited return from a bout with laminitis but her patented late kick was missing. She grinded her way to a short lead but was outfinished by a somewhat underrated Strike Charmer; very well prepared Mark Hennig.

Meanwhile, kudos to leading trainer Chad Brown for getting Lady Eli back to the races at all.

As good as Cavorting was for Kiaran McLaughlin, Mohaymen was as bad, beating one horse in a field of 12. Current plans are for him to return at Gulfstream next season--if we ever see him again. He could use Nyquist’s “late growth spurt.”

Mohaymen’s light-bodied frame has definitively caught up with him. Where there’s much promise, there’s much disappointment.

Like Woodstock, someday 150,000 racing fans will claim to have been at Saratoga Race Course the day Arrogate made Travers history. But there’s no need for anyone to miss it; they can watch it here:

Announced attendance 48,630 rang true with respect to on-track handle of almost $10.779 million, a per capita of $222 with rounding.

Empirically, it felt smaller, and if the 50,000 attendance cap discouraged would-be late-comers, the benefit was for fans who did attend and were able to walk around comfortably all afternoon. It also made auto traffic congestion far more manageable.

From all sources, $45.596 million was wagered on the 13-race program.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)

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