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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Travers and the Championship: A Mystery-Wrapped Enigma

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2014—Could it be that a victory in a race over a synthetic surface by a synthetic-track specialist could turn the result of Saturday’s Travers Stakes over on its hindquarters?

That likely would be the case if Shared Interest draws older horse-first blood by beating, among others, the redoubtable Game On Dude, even if he has lost a step or two, or three, to age.

Mike Smith, who’s been abiding by the Dude the past few years but will abandon him on Sunday when he takes a seat aboard the invincible, thus far unbeatable Shared Belief, is not ready to concede that the old boy is done.

When he’s alowed to get into his speedy rhythm early and dominate the front end of any race, he’s near unbeatable, Smith said, before delivering the best line of Tuesday’s NTRA national teleconference.

“[Game On Dude] might not be as good as he once was, but he can be as good as he was once.” But push came to shove, Smith deciding that youth will be served.

Mike’s been very helpful with Game on Dude, Bob Baffert was saying, adding that Smith is one of those riders that can tell you something about a horse you might not have known before.

“I rode him all wrong,” Smith would tell you, Baffert explaining how a certain horse might want to do something one way while the rider wanted to do something else. Gary Stevens is the same, he said.

Smith said that the one trait Shared Belief had form one ride on the colt was that he was extremely well balanced, that he allow the rider to do virtually anything he wants, that he's very agile.

“It was an easy decision to make, one horse is three and the future is ahead of him. "[Game On Dude] has some good races left in him but he’s probably not going to get any better.”

Shared Belief not only is good but is highly likely to get better; a defending champion that never has been beaten; the sky’s still the limit.

Shared Belief ia rated at #7 on the NTRA Poll this week--Game On Due is #6, incidentally--and is one of five 3-year-olds in the Top 10, the others being California Chrome #3; Bayern #5, and Wicked Strong #9.

The fifth is the filly Untapable at #10.

Like the Eclipse Awards, the NTRA Poll doesn’t have hard fast voting rules except for a loosely constructed mindset that the rankings should reflect accomplishment and the promise that continued succes could result in a Horse of the Year title.

Assumedly, this is why a defending “synthetics champion” with a victory at Los Alamitos can be ranked below a dual classics winner and a sensationally fast Woody Stephens/Haskell winner, but higher than a Wood Memorial/Jim Dandy winner and—at #13—the winner of the Peter Pan and Belmont.

Should either Bayern, Tonalist or Wicked Strong win the Derby of Mid-Summer on Saturday, they could be ranked as high as #4, should Close Hatches be defeated in Friday’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign.

It is unlikely, however, that any of the 3-year-olds could leapfrog #1 Wise Dan, scheduled to return in the Bernard Baruch next week at Saratoga, or Palace Malice, seeking reparations in next Saturday’s Woodward, with or without the addition of blinkers.

However, Shared Belief could vault into third with an impressive Pacific Classic victory over Game On Dude, among other elders. Undefeated and an older-horse victory in August just might get that done.

Ten 3-year-olds will start in the Travers and a victory by any horse outside the Big 3-1/2—Bayern, Tonalist, Wicked Strong and Mr Speaker—would have to be considered a major upset and could topple the entire sophomore apple cart.

With Bayern, it’s a question of his ability to stretch his brilliance over 10 furlongs. Personally, I have no doubt that he can if the early fractions are moderate; he distributed his energy beautifully at Monmouth Park.

It’s a total coin toss between Wicked Strong, who raised his game considerably in blinkers and just might keep marching forward, especially now that he can run in a straight line, and Tonalist.

The Belmont Stakes champion clearly needed the Jim Dandy, carefully handled by Joel Rosario throughout who did enough but not anything near too much, in his capital P Travers prep.

As for Mr Speaker, it’s all about the dirt; will he or won’t he? Always high on Shug McGaughey's depth chart, the colt was way too fresh in the Holy Bull in February at Gulfstream Park. Further, he was forced to move prematurely thereafter when challenged on both flanks at the half-mile pole .

The colt had every right to get tired after spending all that energy early, and that’s exactly what happened. But he has continued to develop, won at 10 furlongs in the grassy Belmont Derby, a race producing two next out winners from five subsequent starters, and has trained like a wild horse on the Saratoga dirt. Can you say fuzzy?

As for the Big 3; here’s the current assessment. Bayern is coming off a ‘A’ effort, maybe even an ‘A+’. It is unlikely he can replicate anything close to that.

Wicked Strong ran his ‘A’ race, no question, and he could be sitting on another just like it. Tonalist is coming off a ‘B+’ with every indication that an ‘A’ is forthcoming. That very much looks like two sides of the same coin. It’s a fascinating puzzle.

Whichever colt solves this mystery, he might have to check out the TV set in his stall on Sunday evening to know whether his Travers victory was enough to move him to the head of the class.

Written by John Pricci

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