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

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saratoga 142 Begins in the Starting Gate

July 22,2010

Dear Diary,

I see that your holding up pretty well, considering you just turned 32. Your pages might be a little yellowed, some dog-eared, too. But, hey, who doesn’t look like hell these days?

I must say this game, especially here in Saratoga Springs, never fails to surprise. Been coming here since my first visit in 1964; saw Malicious win the Jim Dandy out of the Wilson Mile chute.

That makes it 46 years today, but the first time I’ve been officially OK’d to start the meeting.

Roy Williamson
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Roy Williamson

Ran into Roy Williamson this morning, the very capable NYRA Head Starter who replaced Richard Brosseau, who tended his resignation under fire in 2007, three years after the retirement of the very capable--dare we say legendary--Bob Duncan three years earlier.

I promised to follow Roy around one day, from early morning schooling to the races in the afternoon, to see exactly what goes into the race starting process, and I will, too.

For fans and bettors, the race begins once the horses leave the starting gate. For Williamson and his crew, it’s where the race begins and ends. And they all might be the most underappreciated racetrack practitioners of them all.

Like umpires, you only notice the starting gate crew when things go wrong. Very seldom do they hear the words “thank you” when a race starts without incident. The job is labor intensive, not to mention sometimes dangerous.

Some days, starters do more handicapping than the bettors. They have to know each horse’s traits, good and bad, and handle them accordingly: This horse doesn’t want a handler in the gate; the horse in the next stall might need two. It’s their job, mostly Williamson’s, to figure it all out.

I saw a program printout of Friday’s opening day card. Horse #1 in race #1 is Seattle Mission. Williamson’s gate notes--he started the process about a dozen years ago--indicate that Seattle Mission needed gate schooling, evidenced by his last start.

Just before I caught up with him, the Starter was on his way to Barclay Tagg’s barn to see whether or not the three-year-old colt spent some quality time with a member of Roy’s crew.

Gate Crew
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Gate Crew - Sterling Cornu, Edward Cibelli, Kenneth Retzel, John Hocker, Roy Williamson, Jay Ryan, Justin Pringle, Hector Soler

Can’t remember what Seattle Mission’s issue was; whether he wants to back up once inside the gate, or if he throws his head about before the start. Whatever the problem, it’s Williamson’s job to figure it out.

Diary, I only have to decide whether he will be a prompt 2-1 early line favorite when Tom Durkin implores the crowd to join him in a chorus of “…And they’re off at Saratoga!”

Ten races, half of them oversubscribed, comprise the opening day program, topped by the return of Vineyard Haven, a true Grade 1 sprint performer in the 7-furlong James Marvin overnight stakes. He’s 3-5 on the early line, justifiably, but it might turn out to be a good betting race, anyway. We’ll see.

The traditional opening day feature, the G3 Schuylerville Stakes for juveniles, has attracted seven very fast fillies, six betting interests including a coupled entry, one of which will be scratched by trainer Wesley Ward.

If it’s Final Mesa which he chooses to run--he’s leaning toward starting her stable mate--she’s our choice. She‘s 3-for-3, including two ungraded stakes, her spacing is good, and she’s quickly learning how to distribute her energy more efficiently.

Otherwise, it’s a close call among Stopspendingmaria, Let’s Get Fiscal and Show Me The Bling, which I suppose, diary, has a symmetry all its own.

Of those three, the preference would be for Todd Pletcher’s Stopspendingmaria, who broke her maiden by 7 lengths at Belmont in very fast time. Pletcher, who uncharacteristically, has been talking smack, telling those within earshot “I want my title back,” clearly wants to get off to a fast start.

Guess I’d feel the same if I won six Spa titles. But Linda Rice is out to prove that last year training title wasn’t some quaint fluke. She is desperate to repeat. Given that they have about 160 head between them stabled here--about a third of them babies--you can make the Pletcher-Rice entry 1-9.

Of immediate concern to Pletcher will be trying to win his fourth Schuylerville. Like his mentor, Darrell Wayne Lukas, he has a way with young fillies. “Maria’s” maiden win looked sensational and was fast. A filly coming back on 22 days rest is always a concern.

Of immediate concern to Williamson are all those two-year-olds and lightly raced youngsters from the Pletcher and Rice outfits, not to mention unraced stock from virtually every stable on the grounds.

“I hold my breath every time the two-year-olds leave the gate here,” Williamson said, especially here, when the constant whir of backstretch activity could easily distract or upset unseasoned hot-bloods.

Thinking about Pletcher, I asked Williamson about the brilliant Quality Road, who boiled over in the starting gate at Santa Anita before last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“He was always a little skittish at the gate but we’ve done a lot of work with him. He’s fine now. He just wants to look around a little first. If you let him do that, you can walk him right in.”

That should be a comfort to bettors willing to take less than even money on Quality Road in the Whitney, despite the presence of Blame, a few weeks from now. But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves.

Right now, diary, I’m good to go. Got my gate card from Roy. The stewards already know that on the card it reads I “have been properly schooled and now ready to start in a race.”

Written by John Pricci

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