Pricci's Saratoga Diary
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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Race-Riding Is Permitted, Encouraged Even

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2011--For those a little unfamiliar with how this game is played, there was a lesson to be learned today at Saratoga Race Course and it’s this:

Races are not run on paper. They are run on dirt, on grass, and on synthetic surfaces. Sometimes, the track is fast; sometimes it’s sloppy. Sometimes the turf is firm, sometimes it’s less; yielding, or soft. Like today.

Grass course conditions and a very rough trip conspired to defeat the brilliant Winter Memories, the 2-5 favorite to win the Grade 2 Lake Placid for three-year-old fillies on the turf.

The trip part is on jockey Jose Lezcano, but part of it wasn’t, too. He blamed the ground, naturally.

Trainer Jimmy Toner wasn’t having any of it, indirectly putting the onus on the rider but making no excuses for the going.

“She was trapped in the whole time,” said Toner. “She doesn’t like to be between horses. She wasn’t comfortable. They left [the turf] on and I was good with that.

“She won the Miss Grillo on soft ground. There are no excuses. When you win, you win; when you lose, you lose. It’s Saratoga, the Graveyard of Favorites.”

Lezcano was a little more cryptic. “I don’t think she liked it,” he said.

The temptation is to put all the blame on Lezcano, but he was a victim of circumstances. The race was probably lost at the clubhouse turn when he couldn’t get her back from between horses.

Lezcano tried to ease her back but was too much in the bridle, throwing her head, asking for more rein. But if given more rein, Winter Memories would have run up on heels, or worse.

On Mark Cusano’s “Down The Stretch,” television show Saturday morning, Toner told the audience: “The only instructions I ever give Jose is to get her in the clear. She gets anxious when she races between horses.”

She certainly does.

Lezcano did try his best, however, but his rivals had him trapped. Whenever he tried to move, they moved. Whenever he tried to take back--soon after straightening away into the backstretch--they took back with her.

After seeing that maneuver, you knew it was only going to get worse, and it did.

Lezcano tried to move up inside of rivals entering the far turn but when he asked her, the filly appeared to be spinning her wheels, trying, but remaining in place.

Finally, the rider was able to get her outside for a clear run. But Dynamic Holiday and Ramon Dominguez, who kept her hemmed in every step of the way, wouldn’t let her out, nor did they have to.

With his access blocked, Lezcano peaked at a seam just to his left in front of him but that hole closed just as quickly because the inside horse was bearing out. So Lezcano altered course to the fence.

Winter Memories surged forward, actually brushing the rail about a sixteenth of a mile from home. But that wasn’t the problem. The filly got tired fighting her rider and the ground beneath her, losing show in the final strides.

Winter Memories was so heavily fancied that she attracted $127,000 of the $172,000 bet in the show pool, which would have cost the track money had she finished on the board. But she didn’t, leading to show payoffs of $12.20, 12.00 and 11.00.

The winning Hungry Island, meanwhile, was not totally unexpected. She is a filly on the come and yesterday, the G2 Lake Placid was a coming out party and trainer Shug McGaughey wasn’t sure the favorite would be at her best.

“I didn’t know if she would handle the ground but I knew we would because we’ve run on it before,” McGaughey said. What I liked is that [jockey Alex Solis] he was kind of messing with that other filly [Winter Memories] a bit trying to keep her down on the inside, and she still was able to finish that way going that far.”

Even though Solis was winning the tactical battle, Hungry Island indeed had a lot to do as the field reached headstretch. But you knew that if Lezcano had a choice, he’d rather have been where Solis was.

“My plan was to follow [Winter Memories] the whole ay,” Solis said. “I had a good trip, tracked her, got to the half-mile pole and then I waited a little longer and a little longer.

“I got out at the quarter-pole and then I waited a little longer and a little longer. She’s very amazing and I’m very proud of her.”

Toner knows Winter Memories better than anyone. He trained her mother, Memories Of Silver, and if he says she can handle the ground because she won the Miss Grillo, I can’t question that.

But American high-turn-of-foot horses always seem to do better on firm because their long strides are not compromised by any slipping and sliding. They just seem to skip over the firmer going.

There was no skipping over the top of ground yesterday at Saratoga, not after the brief but torrential rains. But there will be other opportunities. That’s why they run the races outdoors, not on paper.

Written by John Pricci

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