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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Sunday, August 23, 2015


SARATOGA: History, Horses and Healthy Business


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 23, 2015—It’s Travers week and, barring any untoward occurrences during American Pharoah’s scheduled trial this morning, there promises to be a hot time in the old town come Saturday.

A victory in the storied Derby of Midsummer always has historical implications, especially when a champion shows up. Participation and victory for the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner will enhance his legend, probably to disproportionate levels. Time does that.

An historic celebration will assure the 2015 Saratoga meet aesthetic success of epic proportions, whatever the average fan’s feelings toward current management. And give them this: they are pushing the right buttons here and the numbers prove it.

The efficacy of the metrics traditionally used by the industry are considered outmoded by some, but until something better comes along, conventional wisdom will have to do.

Double-digit handle increases on and off track are impressive, with daily averages of $4 million and almost $16 million the envy of any sustained meeting anywhere in the world, including their cross-country turf-and-surf rival.

Field size at the Spa is also strong with nearly 9 runners per race. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened here. Obviously, the weather has been very good for business--although it doesn’t rain all that much in San Diego, either.

The number of turf races lost could be counted on two hands, amazing considering that yesterday was the fifth Saturday of the session. Rain has come either at night or on dark days.

This probably doesn’t augur well when measured against the law of averages and the enormity of next weekend’s program. Parenthetically, no one in attendance will ever forget the Birdstone Travers.

The racing has been uniformly excellent, top heavy in talent and competitiveness, and the riding has been superb.

Irad Ortiz Jr. needs no introduction, of course, but he’s been a revelation here despite several uneven performances. He’s been leading rider at NYRA tracks but never Saratoga, and this is the one that everyone wants.

Johnny is Johnny and Javier is Javier, but Luis Saez has riding the turf courses like he owns them and Jose Ortiz is speeding bullet away from the barrier. Joel Rosario has emerged from a mini-slump.

Kendrick Carmouche is showing he belongs here and young Eric Cancel continues to be wise beyond his years. Jose Lezcano and Junior Alvarado continue winning regularly for their loyal clients.

It’s been the Todd and Chad show at the top of the trainer ranks, to no one’s surprise, considering their talent and numbers but many others are having terrific meets.

Kiaran McLaughlin’s horses have looked good and have run even better. Bill Mott owned the first quarter of the stand. Jeremiah Englehart and must be pinching himself every morning.

Tony Dutrow and Wesley Ward have come alive this week, the former in a big way. George Weaver and Gary Contessa both got their fifth wins yesterday and good to see Jimmy Toner’s horses running very well.

Saratoga seldom fails to fire but Del Mar may be reflecting the general malaise that engulfs California racing these days. Between the TOC’s greed and the out of touch stage of the CHRB, the karma in America’s second biggest market is bad and the numbers reflect that.

On the biggest day of the Del Mar meet in which the mare Beholder made Pacific Classic history, Saratoga’s 11-race Alabama card out-handled Del Mar’s program by nearly $5.8 million. That’s stunning.

And considering the betting tastes of these equal yet disparate destination meets, California continues its love affair with the Pick 6. Yet through the first 28 days of the meet and despite four more carryover days than last year, Pick 6 handle is off $2 million.

Want to know what’s interesting about that? The Pick 5, with its fan-friendly takeout rate and popular fractional betting unit, continues to grow, a fact that’s also spilled over to a small increase in the Pick 4, where a one day handle reached a record $1.4 million.

Here’s some more A-B-C type information for greedy horsemen’s groups and or racetracks to consider. Yesterday, both the P5 and P4 at Del Mar out-handled Saratoga by $200,000+ and $300,000+, respectively.

However, exacta handle at Del Mar with its excessive 22.68% takeout rate was $2.8 million compared to Saratoga’s $5.4 million featuring an 18.50% hold. Will myopic, unknowing executives and horsemen ever learn that excess never equals success?

Del Mar business if off $2 million year over year with their biggest day in the history books. With one less day of racing, business is down a staggering $32 million from 2013.

If California racing continues its present policies, its popularity will continue to erode and it should expect the bad news to continue. And that would be a damn, senseless shame. California racing and its fans deserve much better.

Bets n’ Pieces:
Johnny’s milestone 800th Spa victory was quintessential Velazquez. Giving Run a Dubb Dubb a perfect trip, he moved aggressively when another rival got first run, putting his horse in the game and got the job done with a punishing left hand before riding out his mount to victory…

That was quite an Alabama performance by Embellish the Lace, but will some three-year-old filly finally step up and take charge of this division? Meanwhile, Tony Dutrow's confidence and preparation was like some old page from Charlie's or Woody's book. Well done...

Beholder was absolutely amazing, becoming the first female winner in Pacific Classic history…I know I’m getting well ahead of myself here, but American Pharoah vs. Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the kind of sensation not seen since Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra once graced racing’s stages...

Just like the old Keeneland and the old Monmouth do not resemble their clichéd reputations of years ago, neither does the old Spa. You still need the ability to run fast but not from in front. Haven’t seen many races stolen this season and while the rail may still be the shortest way home, it hasn’t been the fastest way, either. But the current state of the surface has added a dimension to the competitiveness one expects from the best extended race meet on the planet…

Joe Sharp has done great work with Troy-winning Shore Runner, an amazing turf sprinter who just comes to get you no matter what the dynamics are…Horses To Watch: Sheikh of Sheikhs can really run. Rated very well in front by Eric Cancel who engineered an even sprint-type pace in 22.71, 46.06 and getting 6 furlongs in 1:10.14—right, a last quarter in 24 seconds; not bad for a debuting baby. Runners-up Portfolio Manager and Gift Box, both trained by Chad Brown, won’t be maidens for long [replay worth your time]…

Isotherm
looked like a turf horse in paddock and post parade then went out an proved it; nice colt, follow progress! Runner-up Life Imitates Art was too sharp in his new blinkers although he still raced greenly. Despite Irad Ortiz’s herculean efforts, he never got him to switch to his correct lead and just missed in a very game stretch performance. Show finisher Hunter O’Reilly trailed in 10th throughout, angled out for a lane on the far turn, angled wide into the stretch and closed very determinedly, beaten two necks for all of it [see replay].

Written by John Pricci

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