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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Trainer Battles Make for Good Sport, Betting Not So Much

SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 13, 2017—


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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