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.
 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Equestricon Breaks Quickly for the Fans, Less So For Players


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 15, 2017—As trade shows go, depending on how much time and passion is devoted to the effort, what you see is exactly what you get. Whether it be trains, boats, cars, or comedians, standard are usually met.

In that context--and in that context only—when I left the Saratoga City Center, my socks remained right where they were when I put them on this morning.

But considering this is horse racing we’re talking about, it was difficult for true lovers of Thoroughbred sport--whether they were first attracted by the horse, the spectacle or the gambling, not to walk away captivated.

What was so impressive was that it happened in the first place. It was something that veteran racetrackers never thought they would see.

So the fact that Equestricon did happen made it an unqualified success. If one wanted to parse those words, the observer would say it was a very worthy first effort. It was the kind of debut that in time could move horse racing forward despite its many impediments.

We could not spend more than several hours a day on Monday and Tuesday but wanted to feel the atmosphere.

After cruising all the exhibits, many belonging to “signature event partners,” we thought the event was in the main nicely attended, especially considering Monday was a racing day.

We noted many of the organizations that one would have expected to see at a horse racing convention: America’s Best Racing, Breeders’ Cup, Daily Racing Form, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame, NYRA and TVG.

Other lesser-tiered partners were racetrack organizations; the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Keeneland, The Stronach Group and Woodbine.

We spent time at three conferences. The first was “Racing Media: Past, Present and Future.” We arrived during the session and assume that past media was addressed before taking our seat.

There were no Racing Form people on this panel--although Matt Bernier did moderate “Big Scores on Big Days,” sponsored by Kentucky Downs. The point of emphasis we witnessed was how best to attract future fans; the consensus was via social media.

“Racing has been slow to embrace some of the newer technology,” offered one media panelist.

There were readily recognizable television and radio electronic media personalities among a group that also included representatives from “The New York Times,” “Saratoga Special” and online magazine “Thoroughbred Racing Commentary.”

There was a strong number of ownership and racing outfits represented at the convention, too, a group consisting of West Point Thoroughbreds, Centennial Farms, Sagamore Racing, Stonestreet Farms, Bradley Thoroughbreds and Kirkwood Stables.

The august Jockey Club was among the missing brands despite the fact that the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was the event’s official charity partner: Curious.

The truly enjoyable part for me was the Author series featuring multi-faceted, award-winning journalist Bill Nack and Team Secretariat, including jockey Ron Turcotte.

As I walked in, Secretariat was on a monitor, about to be “moving like a tremendous machine.” When he reached the finish line, a room full of people began to applaud. For lovers of the game, it was a chilling moment.

When it comes to story-telling, there are few authors on the planet who can hold a candle to Nack. His great, late friend Frank De Ford was one, colleague Tony Kornheiser another. It wasn’t long before Nack was reaching into the recesses of memorable experience.

“Jack Nickalus, the great golfer, was telling me this story about a conversation he had with Woody Broun…” Nack, of course, was referencing Hayward Hale Broun; author, actor, sportswriter and commentator. “You remember him,” said Nack, “he wore those colorful plaid jackets…

“Nicklaus was not a racing fan but he followed Secretariat through the Triple Crown. As Secretariat bounded down the stretch at Belmont Park, Nicklaus told Broun, ‘I got down on all fours and started pounding the rug--go, go--and then there were tears rolling down my cheeks. I don’t understand it, why did I start crying?

“Broun said, ‘Jack, you’re a golfer, a great golfer, and you’re always striving for perfection. Well, you just saw it’.”

Nack was asked “If you could describe Secretariat in one word, what would it be?” Nack didn’t answer immediately and fielded a few more questions before somebody came back to the original question. “One word?” Nack looked skyward, then back at the audience.

“Divine,” he said. More applause.

On Tuesday morning I was up early to attend the HANA talk. I thought it was great that someone thought to include a horseplayers’ organization at a first ever horse racing convention. Unfortunately, I left disappointed.

On the panel, moderated by Churchill Downs simulcast host, Joe Kristufek, was Theresia Muller, a founding member of the Horseplayers Association of North America, Eclipse Award-winning Handicapping Champion, Paul Matties, and board member Jerod Dinkin.

The credentials of these individuals are impressive, each with a deep understanding and knowledge of racing’s myriad problems; issues that have a profound effect on the player. The panel was thoughtful and sincere, its leaders less so.

I sincerely hope there were no health or family issues that prevented HANA President Jeff Platt from attending the debut of his organization at Equestricon. Personal issues notwithstanding, his absence was stunning.

I made a comment about it during a Q and A session at the end of the presentation but no explanation was offered. Keeneland’s offensive takeout hike was mentioned by a panelist almost immediately. “That was a real kick in the butt,” said another.

I wondered aloud why no one mentioned the “B word,” boycott as a possible course of action. I was told that influential mega-players, such as Mike Maloney of Lexington, have been contacted and that he and others are working behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, the takeout ship has already sailed, so I’m a little dubious about the negotiation process at this late date.

I asked, too, if anyone thought rebates were fair, explaining that I’m a small player who bets about $50,000 annually and that I didn’t think it was fair to be rewarded in nickels-and-dimes player rewards while whales got rebated in dollars.

Answers were not forthcoming which is not surprising. How can HANA be an effective ombudsman if it also wants to be part of the racing community at large? Watchdogs are not supposed to sit at a round table with an industry it’s supposed to be monitoring.

Horseplayer advocates should be sitting across the table from industry stakeholders. If not, it’s inherently conflicted--not White House-sized conflict but nevertheless at cross purposes with the people it is chartered to represent.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 13, 2017


Trainer Battles Make for Good Sport, Betting Not So Much


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 13, 2017—

DEAR DIARY,

The Who’s Hot-Who’s Not aspects of handicapping relating to current trainer and jockey standings are, as an exercise, somewhat perfunctory. And that’s the case at virtually every race meet in America, but not this one.

Saratoga is one meeting where everything is magnified, especially considering it’s the only lengthy session that still attracts wholesale mainstream media coverage, whether it be electronic, print or online.

So it follows that one of the major storylines here is the battle for leading trainer between last year’s champion, “local boy” Chad Brown of nearby Mechanicville, vs. perennial leader Todd Pletcher.

It does not escape us that this is a battle between upper-dogs, each having access to a couple of hundred of the best pedigrees in the world every year. Their operations never require rebuilding their as much as their need to simply reload.

Still, diary, in our first full week here, this competition has been pretty dramatic with Brown having a five-win when we arrived last weekend. Then the Pletcher barn began firing on all cylinders and the battle is on in earnest.

The sense is that Brown simply can’t help himself when it comes to winning races with a collection of the best stock he has trained to date while at once Pletcher seems like a man on a mission, wanting to reclaim a title he won a dozen times.

Most observers would agree that Pletcher is the more diplomatic of the two, both would likely downplay the intramurals and talk about how their goal is to make their owners happy by increasing the value of their stock. Make no mistake; that’s true, of course.

But this rivalry is real, each with a burning the desire to out-win his rival; the bigger margin, the better. It’s not like “these teams don’t like each other,” but it’s close.

After Pletcher narrowed the gap earlier this week, the tit-for-tat battle has been fun to watch, one of the more entertaining days when one had a natural double, the other answered with a back-to-back of his own, the two sweeping half the races on the card.

As David Grening of Daily Racing Form observed on Twitter Thursday in relation to the day’s events: “There have been seven races run at Spa today. Brown and Pletcher have won five of them. They both have 20 for the meet. Sometimes we overthink it.”

Entering Sunday’s program, Brown and Pletcher are tied with 22 wins each. After that there’s a logjam for third among Kiaran McLaughlin, Jason Servis and Linda Rice with seven.

Indeed, horseplayers do tend to overthink many handicapping puzzles. But with fewer “square” dollars in the betting pools and as serious players continue to walk away from the game, the search for betting value has become exceedingly difficult.

With Brown and Pletcher dominating the results, along with other seemingly invincible high-percentage trainers, the situation has become the good news-bad news for horseplayers. We know who the live outfits are; the problem is everyone does.

This makes value virtually unattainable, unless one has extreme patience, and it affects both the horizontal and vertical pools, especially the former with all its promotional hype about life-changing scores--with nary a word on degree of difficulty.

“Free squares” are fine, providing the rest of the sequence is highly challenging. But between dominant trainers, the power of “sheets” players, and high takeout, betting pools feature far more underlays than overlays.

The leading trainer battle at Saratoga has its entertaining, sporting aspects but it doesn’t help the bankroll. Neither does leading jockey battles. The Ortiz brothers are often at the top these days, but at least they have Johnny and Javier and Joel, among others, to contend with.

It is said that one can’t argue with success. But in this game, dominating success takes much of the fun out of playing the game.

SHAME ON KEENELAND: Unless you were otherwise distracted this week, you couldn’t help notice that Keeneland, one of the most player-friendly racetracks in the industry, went the way of Southern California and nearby Churchill Downs.

The Keeneland Racing Association raised the taxes of wagering considerably—not in the highly promoted, churn-killing, bankroll-draining horizontal exotics--but in the bread and butter backbone of horse-race wagering; the straight and exacta pools.

Clearly, Keeneland has shifted its focus away from the customer. No longer concerned with its player-friendly reputation, it wants now to be regarded as horsemen friendly first. Only owners and trainers need apply here.

Keeneland’s purses and prestige are already high enough to compete with any track in the country, beating out most. Purses don’t need boosting at the expense of already beleaguered horseplayers.

There’s so much about Thoroughbred racing at Keeneland that’s so terrific, from its beloved confines, wonderful atmospherics, its great racing and ample good-gamble opportunities. It’s everything a boutique session should be.

But it’s raising taxes on wagering because it can, Kentucky parimutuel law giving it all the wiggle room it needs. Their reputation, the one that separated it from Churchill Downs a lot farther than does the 90 miles of highway, is now the same with customers.

Keeneland can talk all it wants about competitive purses; takeout that’s on par with Oaklawn Park and New York [the latter a false equivalency]; the need for constant upgrading of facilities; expansion costs [that have resulted in increased revenue]; the effects of a depressed sales market and overall industry contraction and so forth.

But it’s not about any of those things; it’s about protecting profit margins at a not-for-profit racetrack, one that has seen revenues flatten but only after recovering much of the losses that all businesses suffered during the deep recession of 2008.

In this country, success is measured at the bottom line. In that spirit, I will cut my losses. I’ll bet on selected stakes and some allowances that have future national implications. But, on principle I’m taking Keeneland out of my personal daily simulcast rotation.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017


Time Is the Cure for Spate of Spa Breakdowns


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 9, 2017—

DEAR DIARY,

Before Day 16 of the annual celebration of Thoroughbred horse racing known as the Saratoga race meet is completed, I wanted to begin the diary by talking numbers.

But instead of referencing the excellent attendance and handle metrics, or how Todd Pletcher is closing gap on main rival Chad Brown, or how Irad Ortiz Jr. is only one win behind younger brother Jose, the numbers that stick out are 14 and 11.

At last year’s Saratoga race meet, 14 horses suffered catastrophic injuries resulting in euthanasia Sadly, in 2017, the number of fatalities current stands at 11 and counting.

The skinny is there’s something demonstrably wrong with main track surface. Everybody knows it but nobody knows at this point how to fix it, at least not while America’s premier race meet is reaching the midway point of its season.

All this as the Alabama, Travers and Woodward horses are waiting in the wings.

Under the condition of anonymity, we spoke with seven horsemen over a period of three days. The stakeholders deal in different disciplines although most, of course, train race horses for a living.

There are numerous theories, many reasonable explanations for why the breakdowns are occurring, but it may be a problem that everyone must to learn to live with until meet’s end on Labor Day. Only time will tell.

The hope is that we don’t see another tragedy, of course. It’s something of a miracle that a jockey hasn’t been seriously injured, although one nearly was during a training accident on the main track last week.

We thought the problem might have been solved when over the last two complete days of racing, August 6 and 7, the track played fairly, not favoring any particular style of running.

On Sunday and Monday, if you had speed, saved ground, and were the best horse, you won. If the pace was hot enough, you could rally down the center of the track as the speed was tiring. Finally, race dynamics were beginning to make sense.

But I recall exclaiming “what the hell?” while watching opening day on television in South Florida—the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” lid-lifter—as the first-race field curled into the lower clubhouse turn, clods were flying every which way, lots of clods.

To me it appeared that the track was playing beyond cuppy. You don’t race a mile and an eighth run on a dead track in a 1:55 and see no positional changes. It was the kind of merry-go-round that went beyond routine speed biases that surface on occasion.

One trainer we spoke with who was schooling two year olds at the gate, walked over to the seven-furlong chute to get a closer look and told me it was “really tough” walking on the main dirt track.

Another horseman said “it’s not like the surface is that deep but it holds you, pulls at you like quicksand. If my shoes weren’t tied tight they would have come off.”

Another stakeholder spoke with two highly respected veteran jockeys who said “the problem is that the track is inconsistent. It’s like the first turn is different than the far turn, the backstretch is different than the front stretch.

“It acts normal, then in different spots horses would just bog down,” the jockeys told the source.

As was first reported in independent racing media by Mark Berner of HorseRaceInsider on August 1, what made this spate of injuries unusual is the number of hind leg injuries. Unlike front leg compression injuries, back legs propel horses forward, supplying the power. But if your stride is compromised by the surface...

While hind end injuries do occur as a matter of course, most horses sustain foreleg injuries. But if horses are having the same difficulty as humans who try to extract their feet from the holding track, this is how accidents happen.

One stakeholder we spoke with Sunday morning recounted a conversation he had with a trainer friend weeks before the meet began. He offered “I know that they added a lot of clay to the track recently, what does that mean?”

“It means broken bones,” the trainer said. Clearly, adding new material was a factor but it’s not that simple. There are plenty of safe clay-based surfaces but they’re not holding ones like this, they are the kind of surfaces that horses skip over.

“I don’t know where the thinking comes from but many people have this idea that deeper surfaces are safer than faster ones? That’s not true, it’s a matter of how they are maintained.”

And when.

“We’re all looking for explanations and there are many theories out there,” said yet another horseman who, like many of his colleagues, have sent their horses over to the Oklahoma training track for morning trials.

Many horses that put in fast final workouts before their first local start raced poorly, the works taking too much out of them, sapping their racing reserves.

“I know [track superintendent] Glen Kozak. He’s a good man, he cares, and he knows what he’s doing. But I know this is keeping him up nights.”

Some horsemen complained that there always seems to be a tight seal on the surface too much of the time. “Tracks have to breathe, they have to be opened up. Dirt tracks are living things; they need water and nutrients to thrive, just like humans do.”

“Let’s face it,” said one. “Some of the best trainers on the world are here and they bring their best horses. Everyone wants to win, it’s so competitive. So when you have 20 to 30 lengths separation from first to last in so many races, something’s wrong.”

As referenced earlier, we thought the problem was close to being solved as we observed the races of August 6 and 7. After the finale on Whitney Day, three tractors came out of the maintenance yard and began to “roll” the track; compact the surface.

image
Tractor #3 filled with concrete blocks.

The first two tractors were tugging 10 huge drums. We counted as many as 11 wheels stacked across the track that served as rear wheels to support their heavy loads. The third tractor had its bin full of what appeared to be huge, thick, heavy concrete slabs.

From my press box window, I have watched tracks being rolled for nearly a half century and never have seen anything quite like this. They made one circumference, covering 4 or 5 paths wide, then made a second pass that extended nearly to the crown of the track.

Judging from Sunday’s and Monday’s results, the tack appeared to work--until the next catastrophic breakdown. Unfortunately, fixing the problem completely may have to wait until next year. Racetracks, like race horses, need time.

image
First two tractors toting weighted drums

If there was one theory resembling consensus it was that clay was added too late and there wasn’t enough time to allow the main track to settle.

Two of the seven stakeholders we spoke with said the exact same things in the same way: “You can’t shut a track down for 10 months, open it 10 days before the meet starts and expect things to be normal.

“You have to let the top settle, open it up so that it mixes properly, especially when you’re adding materials like clay that holds water. There wasn’t enough time to allow the clay to mix into the racetrack. Now that we’re three weeks in, maybe the track is settling.”

The fault does not lie at the feet of Kozak. This North Country spring was unusually wet and the clay couldn’t be added until after a horse show was staged on the main track. It’s one thing to be community-minded; it’s another to run a racetrack.

While it may be too late this year, something can be done to improve the main track surface before the 2018 meet.

One horseman said Allen Jerkens once told him the association used to plant winter wheat on the Saratoga main track, making the dirt rich in nutrients prior to the snow blanket of winter.

Also in the day, Hialeah, with a deserved reputation as one of the safest racetracks ever, benefitted from the growing of soybeans during the off season. Remember the rich, brown color of the surface?

The hope is, now that the meeting is nearly halfway home, the track will continue to settle and that the human and equine athletes, and the pocketbooks of bettors, will all benefit from improved conditions.

I-Phone Photos

Written by John Pricci

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