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 05, 2017

Saratoga 2017: A to Z

When Saratoga Race Course opened for business in August of 1863, the race meet was four days long.

Now it’s 10 times that, but its impact on the community and horse racing in America cannot be measured in any conventional manner, even if tradition is part of its fabric.

That’s because, like its polar opposite, Las Vegas, what happens here stays here, too. Like, say, the Travers Stakes has for 148 years.

But Saratoga is also like big city America, places such as New York or New Orleans. Visiting the Spa is more than a diversion from mundanity: Saratoga is a place you can feel.

Whether in person or viewing what happens between the fences from afar, the racing season passes in 22 and 44-flat. It arrives and then, poof, it’s gone:

Here are some takeaways of images left behind:

ASMUSSEN: Steve Asmussen is a confident guy; sometimes brash, sometimes cocky, almost always clipped. But the “big horse” seems to have altered that. His bigger, stronger chestnut gives him confidence, the kind of confident assurance that humbles in the presence of greatness.

BAFFERT: Love him; hate him; envy him. There’s enough of all three to go around and in the face of it all, he’s one horse-trainin’ sonuvabitch. He had Spa-loving Drefong on point for a second straight year.

Bullet Bob’s sure-handed patient development of West Coast was, like his handling of another lower tier 3-year-old last year, was good enough to vault his colt to the top of the class, however tenuous that assessment may turn be. Right race; right time, right horse.

CHAD: No record-breaking training title this year—missing by only one—but he has gotten to first-name-only recognition quicker than you can say Elvis. Yes, he has quality numbers at his disposal. Then you have to deliver and seemingly he gets optimal results with every last one.

DOMINGUEZ: Could not be happier that Ramon is enjoying life safe and sound on the ground but saddened because none of us can begin to imagine what the turmoil within is like every time he watches a horse race.

A red jacket might not have the same cache in sports as a green one, but it’s the best we have in the best possible place. Ramon should wear it with pride because he earned it by being among the best we’ve seen in the past half-century.

This one, Chris Kay got right.

Finished with a rush and had a breakthrough meet despite a big O-fer to start the session, in the end the young rider going photo-for-photo with the deepest jock’s room in America. Manny Franco is a star on the rise.

GUN RUNNER: With help from Disappointments from Del Mar, he went from bridesmaid to Best in Show, enjoying one of the best months any horse has ever had, taking two of the most prestigious races run in this country. He parlayed a Whitney tour de force by doubling-down in the Woodward. Tactical speed and kick; attributes of a champion.

On balance, took it on the chin. If it weren’t for a slew of winning favorites over the final four-day weekend, bringing the percentage of winning choices up to a respectable 31%, consistent form--horses for courses notwithstanding--was exceedingly hard to find. We believe this happenstance was surface related.

INJURIES: As above, we believe this happenstance was surface related. Catastrophic injury was not the result of poor maintenance but rather of poor planning. Slower tracks do not necessarily make safer tracks. If clay is not well integrated into sand and loam, bad things can happen. Go organic in advance of 2018.

JUDGES: Some fouls are easy to call, and some are so close that compelling arguments can be made on both sides. On balance, the tough ones come out 50-50. But the decision to not allow Ron Paolucci to enter a pacemaker for his Woodward entrant—as is done routinely in Europe, and was prevalent here back in the day—comes with poor political optics. All anyone requires from any of this is even-handedness and consistency.

“KING OF SARATOGA”: That sobriquet was once the exclusive province of Angel Cordero Jr. and now belongs to a young Puerto Rican man he welcomed into his home three decades ago. His tutelage produced the current King of Saratoga, Johnny Velazquez, winningest rider in Saratoga history.

Johnny V rode a remarkable 46 winners—third overall--from far fewer mounts than the meet’s leaders. JR’s smarts, expertise and stealth allowed him to win far more than his fair share of photos. Long live the King.

LADY ELI: Because dirt racing is America’s game, grass specialists termed great come with a kind of invisible asterisk. But not this mare. Given what she has overcome and her accomplishments after beating laminitis, she is one of racing’s all-time great Thoroughbreds. Period.

LEADING OWNER: In the modern era, several have had a good run at the title; the Ramseys had more than their 15 minutes, as did Mike Repole. But NYRA Board member and racing philanthropist Michael Dubb, et al, has been Saratoga’s dominant owner the past four years.

With an array of equine talented spanning many class levels, and with the help of some of the most prolific winning trainers in the game, Dubb had his picture taken on 15 separate occasions, two more than Team Klaravich.

METRICS: Handle figures have given way to revenue when it comes to measuring business success but it still remains a solid measure of popularity. Record handle for a Saratoga race meet was set by Sunday’s second race with nearly two full cards remaining. In the last three years, Saratoga handle fell less than $28M short of reaching the $2B mark. A mind-boggling number by any measure.

ORTIZ x 2: Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other and that includes divorces, such as was on display yesterday when Irad claimed foul against baby brother Jose. In the end there was no denying Ortiz the Younger his second straight Spa riding title.

Jose’s 58 winners were five more than brother Irad. Notable victories came aboard a pair of Grade 1 3-year-old fillies; Elate in the Alabama and American Gal in the Test. Among other attributes, Jose catches more flyers out of the gate than any jockey in America.

PORTER: Owner Rick Porter is not only a profile in courage but candor as well. While various segments of media argued whether too much was being asked of Songbird’s lofty reputation, he knew she was not the same filly at 4 than she was at 2 and 3.

Coincidence or not, reaching the bottom in her titanic battle with older Beholder in the 2016 Distaff, she was never the same, after taking a long time to make her seasonal debut. Thank heavens Porter acted on the observation of assistant trainer Christina Jelm during the Personal Ensign post-parade and her subsequent narrow defeat. He retired her promptly, avoiding a tragedy that laid in wait.

TODD: After being dethroned as Training King of Saratoga, Pletcher, with the help of assistant trainers at Belmont and Monmouth Park, returned with a vengeance to win the title back from his arch rival, tying Chad Brown’s record of 40 winners in the process.

New York’s two leading trainers went at it from the very first race of the meet to the final day, with the latter falling one win short of a tie. It was the best leading-trainer battle we’ve ever witnessed, anywhere.

Four victories in six weeks in this day and age, entering the same rarified Saratoga air as Native Dancer, was the topping on this Saratoga confection. Given Spa legend, the 3-year-old’s name has a certain symmetry to it, even if 65 is not that old by Saratoga standards.

Saratoga horses-to-watch notwithstanding, the number of bets we intend to make at the upcoming Keeneland meet. We will be watching the races with interest, of course.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Saratoga Diary: Live on Travers Day

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 26, 2017--

Race 11 Travers 148: In the final analysis, only the first three Travers finishers ran their level best and two of them were pace factors, which has been the theme on this new Saratoga surface that's tighter now than it was early in the meet but still loose on top.

But the surface did not have a negative effect on the trifecta finishers that did not have a recent race over the track, although runnerup Gunnevera did win the Saratoga Special as a 2016 juvenile.

And so the runner that out-looked many of his rivals pre-race ran to those looks under a heady Mike Smith who seized the moment and the lead, setting a reasonable pace for the distance and was never seriously threatened.

The winning West Coast throws the division into further disarray, and if the Travers hero is not the division's best after Saturday's performance, he's certainly peaking at a time when three-year-olds who get good become major Breeders' Cup Classic horses.

Just when you thought fate had ruled Bob Baffert out of the three-year-old picture, West Coast pulled him back in. And now that the colt has a speed dimension to go with his late punch, he becomes a serious .

He and Smith took charge of a paceless field that appeared on paper would be led by Kentucky Derby-winning Always Dreaming, who never mounted a serious threat.

Gunnevera made a huge sweeping move while wide on the far turn and continued running hard to the finish without threatening the leader. Irap, who joined the moderate early pace form the outside, remained in contention right to the finish but he, too, never appeared the part of a winner.

It was West Coast's day-and it may be his division by Breeders' Cup time. But as of now, divisional disarray rules.

Race 1: High class expensive maidens and what would one expect; Chad, one win behind for for the training title thanks to Friday's three-bagger, vs Todd. Buzz on both but Chad 3-5; Todd 3-1.

The classy maidens, Hazit (3-1) and Good Magic (3-5), finished one-two in inverse order of their odds. Johnny able to cajole 23.18 and 46.91 going 6-1/2 furlongs and had enough class in reserve to hold off the favorite, who will be an even shorter price and a very likely maiden breaker next time out.

They both finished up. After picking up the tempo to 1:10.28, the winner came home in 06:12, a final time of 1.16.40.

Would expect to see classy maidens on Travers day; just did!

Race 2: C'mon. The rails come down on both turf courses for some nice virgin, very firm turf. So, after potential pacesetter Memories of Peter reared at the start, Marshall Eddy leads them a merry chase.

But how's this for fractions? 25.90, 52.20, 1.16.67; final time of 1.55.75 for 1-3/16 miles, respectable given the laughably glacial pace.

But it wasn't funny if you backed Surprise Twist 3-1 as we did. Javier Castellano did what he could under the circumstances but was forced to crank up wide on the final turn, his momentum carrying him 5-6 wide into the lane, yet he finished vigorously for third. His development continues. Stable mail, please...

Race 3: Hold all tickets! Stewards inquiry and a jockey claim of foul Manny Franco vs. Tyler Gaffalione--and the disqualification appeared justified. Yes, we're talking two-year-olds on turf with both horses making racing debut.

Now while the original second finisher did come in intimidating the "winner" slightly after straightening away into the stretch, Empirically came out dramatically beneath Tyler, bumping with Paradise Island (11-1)--also on debut--at a critical juncture in deep stretch as 'Paradise' was threatening to run right on by.

Both horses ran very well.

He Takes Charge had decent position midway down the backside, dropped back for no apparent reason, rallied wide and finished well too late vs. race shape. More stable mail I'm afraid...

Race 4: Actual sprint race, with hot fractions, pace battle and everything. When the dust settled, it was Threefiveindia who finally got his job done for Chad--matching Todd's winner--after Javier engineered perfect trip and well timed move.

No excuses for Lex Vegas and Sticksstatelydude should benefit from his return from a lengthy layup and more ground when he reappears.

Race 5: Rare mistake by meet's leading rider; you don't want to be too aggressive early, losing ground and pressing the pace while meeting better horses. Too bad Sycamore lost the bob, since he did most of the dirty work.

But Johnny can get spooky the way he saves, saves, saves, both horse and ground, and nails you at the line as if he had the race in hand throughout. Shug deserves big props getting Profiteer set to go off an April layup.

Meanwhile, just another tough race dominated by position horses that save ground...

Race 6 G1 Personal Ensign: What a remarkable job done by Dallas Stewart and Joel Rosario; and maybe their mare, Unbridled Forever, finally will get the credit she deserves.

With Mike Smith standing up on his mare through an opening half-mile in almost 48 seconds, anyone who would beat her would have to do so while at a tactical disadvantage.

But it was Rosario who made a positive out of a negative, purposefully keeping his mare wide so that Songbird would not have a chance to look her rival in the eye. Remember that when she did so last year, it was a bob of a defending champion's head, Beholder's, that would hand her her only lifetime defeat.

Stewart got her ready for this off a single prep, and it wasn't as it Songbird stopped; both fillies sprinted home.

But I do now believe that there may be some Distaff hangover. Either that or Songbird has not continued to develop as a 4-year-old. It's just hard to conceptualize the 3-year-old Songbird getting beaten after achieving a loose lead in very moderate fractions.

Race 7 G1 Ballerina:
You've got to be pretty cold not to enjoy seeing Rajiv Maragh win a Grade 1 at Saratoga for Michelle Nevin, a good team, and for Nevin, too, at the expense of divisional leading Paulasilverlining, who she used to train.

Meanwhile, a 7-furlong Grade 1 with an opening quarter in 24 and a little, a half mile in 47 and a little more?

No, we're not kidding. And By The Moon, a gritty sprinter, gutted it out all the way after being shadowed by Highway Star and Angel Arroyo throughout, a filly that never before was beaten at the distance.

Smiles all around.

Race 8: G1 H Allen Jerkens On paper, the Jerkens appeared to be a two-horse race but it was Practical Joke who demonstrated emphatically that he's the most talented one-turn sophomore colt out there.

Narrowly beaten when third in the G1 Haskell, he turned back to 7 furlongs and won his fourth one-turn race without, his second at the trip and also extended his undefeated Spa record to three.

And there was Joel Rosario, in the right place at the right time, tipping off the fence soon after straightening away, the issue never in doubt in midstretch.

Co-favorite and horse to beat, American Anthem, just lost too much ground beneath Money Mike. He wasn't beating the winner, but the trip arguably cost him the place--although Takaful ran his eyeballs out while the other two speeds rated. Go figure.

Race 9 G1 Forego Stakes:
Wow! Drefong, this time with Mike Smith in tow, gave the most dominant performance of the day thus far with a thoroughly comprehensive open lengths victory that was but two-fifths of a second off the track record.

And considering it was for all intents his season's debut, it was remarkable. Yes, he did enjoy a tactical speed advantage but he wasn't completely left alone. However, when Money Mike decided to pull the rug on the group, he gave them the slip in a hurry.
Race 1: High class expensive maidens and what would one expect; Chad, one win behind for for the training title thanks to Friday's three-bagger, vs Todd. Buzz on both but Chad 3-5; Todd 3-1.

The classy maidens, Hazit (3-1) and Good Magic (3-5), finished one-two in inverse order of their odds. Johnny able to cajole 23.18 and 46.91 going 6-1/2 furlongs and had enough class in reserve to hold off the favorite, who will be an even shorter price and a very likely maiden breaker next time out.

They both finished up. After picking up the tempo to 1:10.28, the winner came home in 06:12, a final time of 1.16.40.

Would expect to see classy maidens on Travers day; just did!

Awesome Slew came running late for the place without threatening; second favorite Mind Your Biscuits raced uncharacteristically poorly and third choice Divining Rod looked like he had a lock on the place approaching midstretch then finished one-paced in a disappointing performance.

But no one was defeating the defending sprint champion this day and he underscore his affinity for the Saratoga strip.

Race 10 G1 Sword Dancer: Good people win another on Travers undercard as Sadler's Joy put it all together under a heady, patient ride from Julien for trainer Tom Albertrani.

As the invaders disappointed, an American turf runner with a European turn of foot, got the money as heavily backed Money Multiplier, who was second in the Sword Dancer last year, played runner-up again.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 25, 2017

TRAVERS 148: Best Betting Race of the Modern Era

SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 25, 2017

...And maybe the toughest handicapping puzzle I've ever attempted to solve.

Listed below are all the horses that wouldn't shock me if they emerge as the leading three-year-old dirt male in the country shortly after 5:44 p.m. Saturday.

Only five points on the Pricci Energy scale separates all horses listed; can't remember that happening in any race we've ever handicapped using our own personal scale.

(For full rankings of these contenders, as well as an analysis of the other three races comprising the $1 million guaranteed Pick 4, find more information at

Meanwhile, if you have a hunch, bet a bunch. But an assessment of the odds, after betting has begun, is a must. If your opinion is correct in this race, you had better be properly rewarded. Prime contenders listed in post position order:

Following uncharacteristically poor effort, Preakness winner has trained himself back into the Travers following horrific Jim Dandy effort. Distance is not an issue and he’s well drawn to trip-out switching to five-time Travers winning Javier. Connections wanted an inside draw; they got it. Horses that tout themselves are dangerous.

3 – WEST COAST (4-1)
The obligatory Baffert whose proficiency with ship-ins is nothing short of legendary. Demonstrated high class winning the Easy Goer on Belmont undercard. Pedigree and style indicate no potential distance issues. Made a great physical impression on arrival. Needs to bring A+ game vs. this group but is more than capable.

4 - TAPWRIT (7-2)
Somewhat surprising early line favorite makes first start since winning the Belmont--a most unusual road to the Travers, even if Belmont winners have done well in this race historically. Reported to be working extraordinarily well--and he had better be under the circumstances. Fresh, fit, very solid, but looms an underlay at early line odds.

Won the Jim Dandy going away in dirt debut looking as if he had just dropped in at the eighth pole, an extraordinary late run. Has the benefit of a winning race over the track, the Jim Dandy historically an extremely productive prep. Blowout earlier this week was very sharp and Mott en fuego, winning with most everything, anywhere, right now.

6 - GIRVIN (10-1)
That’s a big early line quote on a Haskell winner whose only poor effort dating back to the spring was in rough-house Derby in which he had tough trip after having missed training time with sore feet. Unlucky loser of Ohio Derby but a fortunate head-bob winner at Monmouth, most recent work was sharp and fast. With proper handling…


Good value on early line with Pletcher accepting the blame for having him “a little too short” on very demanding loose surface in the Jim Dandy, working him only four times since Preakness debacle. Held very gamely while tiring and should benefit from that prep, followed by two sharp breezes. Could easily win this if on or near soft pace.

9 - MCCRAKEN (12-1)

Value play at early line odds, he too has been extremely consistent and owns the best turn of foot in this group which he can sustain a long way. Forced into moving earlier than rider wanted when beaten a nose in Monmouth’s Haskell on surface that favoring late runners. Returned with brilliant breeze 11 days later. Set for best right now.

11 - GUNNEVERA (20-1)
Another who was freshened after Preakness, he had his prep at Gulfstream after long series of bullet works over demanding ‘Calder’ strip. Post should not hinder a slow beginner and Edgard Zayas got along very nicely with him in recent prep and has been riding in top form at GP. Has historically best Thoro-Graph figure and won here at 2.

Per usual, our on-the-record selection will be posted in Saturday's Feature Race Analysis section

Written by John Pricci

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